A half Brit New York Times reporter desperate to save his kidnapped wife, a cabal of fanatics, an age old prophecy and series of murders. This in essence is the plot of Guardian reporter Jonathan Freedland’s debut thriller novel, written under the pseudonym Sam Bourne.
Young New York Times reporter Will Monroe strikes gold when he makes it to the page one of the newspaper with his debut crime story. As he moves around the country, trying to discover the “face behind a crime statistic,” he realizes that good men are being murdered. Suddenly Will must find out why because his wife, Beth, has been kidnapped by a religious cult and the way to his missing wife lies “in his work.” What follows is a series of fabulous twists and turns, of fast paced action, laced with more murders, as Will teams up with his ex-girlfriend TC to rescue the woman he loves. While formulaic, especially in the post Dan Brown age, what distinguishes Bourne’s work is its pace. The reader has no time to sit back and pause. And keeping the book down till you reach the end is near impossible. What the book lacks in novelty, it makes up for in sheer speed. Each page seems to hold a new clue, the promise of unravelling the mystery and yet at least till the end of the first half, you keep coming up with dead ends.
Freedland has made good use of his Jewish background. The book is full of information – most of which the author claims is true and verifiable- on Jewish customs and religious beliefs. Therein lies the book’s other strength. So little is known about Judaism that the insights provided by Freedland are both intriguing and absorbing. Some may claim that the author overdoes the explanations, and yet the novel never seems to be dragging. Not even when you finish one chapter after the other but find yourself no closer to solving the mystery than Will, simply because of your lack of theological knowledge. The lure of ancient mysticism is too strong. After the first half the big picture begins to emerge and you start making educated guesses about the good guys and the bad guys, but till the very end, you have to keep wondering if you are on track. And that keeps you hooked.
Freedland’s years as a newspaper journalist have taught him how to hold his audience’s attention and hold it well. The book may not be a stellar piece of writing, but it is easy to read. Freedland’s one big weakness, however – and this may again be attributed to his journalistic writing skills which concentrate on the story, not on the characters – is the lack of depth in his characters. People come and go in the novel, but you never get to really meet or understand any of them, not even the main protagonist. As such it is difficult to experience their emotions or feel for them even as one tragedy after another befalls them. And the main protagonist is no super hero; not even a brainy intellect “whose mind works faster than the speed of computer.” No Will Monroe is a regular ambitious guy who just happens to find the right people to decipher the clues for him. Some might find this endearing – it makes the character more human; others might wish for a more inspiring “hero.”
The Righteous Men found itself in mired in controversy,not because of its cultural stereotypes, but because The Guardian refused to publish a critical review of the book. Instead, the review appeared in The Times and the book made headlines. Bourne is often compared to Brown and The Righteous men has been labelled by many as the Jewish Da Vinci Code. Yet, this is not the case. Brown’s cryptographic thrillers often carry powerful political message – be it the DA Vinci Code (an organised attempt to use religion to dislodge women from the mainstream) or the Digital Fortress (who will protect us from the protectors? The Big Brother mentality). there are no such burning political or current issues hidden in The Righteous Men. But there is an important moral message articulated by a Jewish rabbi, “So goodness is not about rules. Or wearing a hair shirt. Or praying hard. Or knowing every word in the Bible. It’s about how we treat each other. Bein adam v’adam. Between man and man. That is where goodness, even divinity resides. Not in the heavens, but right here on earth. In our relations with each other….” The other intriguing concept is that of the tzaddikim, but therein lies the key to the mystery of The Righteous Men and it can’t be discussed without spoiling the book.
So if you are looking for a racy thriller to relax with on a lazy Sunday afternoon, pick up The Righteous Men. It may not be a memorable book, it is enjoyable while it lasts.
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