Ordinary Thunderstorms is a thriller with grand ambitions. It is set in contemporary London, much of the action taking place on or near the Thames. The timeless, relentless river represents the elemental forces which subvert the sophisticated but essentially temporary structures raised by modern man to showcase his ambition, ingenuity and greed.
William Boyd has attempted to write a Great London Novel for our times. His clever interlocking of lives from every stratum of society echoes Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend; hit-men, asylum- seekers, prostitutes, religious charismatics, corrupt businessmen, worthless aristocrats, paedophiles, junkies, exploitative landlords — Boyd’s characters, like Dickens’s, inhabit their city like rats in the hollow walls of a big old house. They scuttle about their dubious business rarely breaking cover. The sense of a London gnawed from within by poverty, crime, drugs, financial corruption and sexual malpractice is powerful and unsettling.
The tightly-controlled plot centres on Adam Kindred — as his name suggests, an Everyman character who is, morally, a relatively blank slate. Through a series of mishaps, Kindred becomes a fugitive, wanted for the murder of a scientist whose work in discovering a cure for asthma made him and his files valuable prey. Kindred, innocent of the crime, becomes an ‘urban ghost’. He digs himself a lair in a patch of waste ground near Chelsea Bridge and by abandoning credit cards, telephones and the internet turns himself from a personable young man in a smart suit into a dirty, bearded drop-out, a member of the teeming underclass, invisible and untraceable. As his nemesis, the ex-SAS hardman- going-soft, Jonjo Case, puts it, ‘that’s how you disappear in the 21st century — you just refuse to take part in it.’
Ordinary Thunderstorms is a page-turner. The murder, and Kindred’s disappearance, provoke a destructive spiral of events — a ‘super-cell storm’ — worthy of Tom Wolfe. Boyd’s exposure of 21st-century devices and desires could hardly be pacier or more assured. But there is something strangely colourless and humourless about the whole. Some sections are richly inventive — the bogus ‘Church of John Christ’, for instance, where it’s unclear who is more exploitative, the sinister ‘Bishop Yemi’ or his vagrant congregation.
But too many of the low-life characters are crime-drama stereotypes of the kind who make me turn off the television. They speak in an awkward and unconvincing patois; ‘We jack a lot of mims’. ‘Safe. Check it, boss.’ My emotions were rarely engaged. Adam Kindred is a thin character, little more than a survival machine, and Rita, the decent, competent WPC who is his love-interest, is — well, not interesting. Mouse, the illiterate tart-with-a-golden-heart, is no more than that, except that the gold is somewhat low-carat. The one character who truly interested me was Ingram Fryzer, a millionaire businessman who, in the process of pushing his way to the top, dislocates all his mechanisms for emotional response and who recognises, too late, the harm he has done himself.
This book’s main strength is in its handling of the relationship of the river, the city and its inhabitants. Despite its flaws, Ordinary Thunderstorms is worth reading for its exploration of this ceaselessly fascinating subject.