Act 1: A stranger asks another diner for the time in a restaurant; the stranger leaves some papers behind; the diner attempts to return the documents and finds him stabbed and bleeding. The diner’s fingerprints are now on the knife he pulls out, blood stains his tie, and the police think he did it. A scene reminiscent of the mystery/thriller play 39 Steps?
William Boyd’s Ordinary Thunderstorms starts with the same Hitchcock suspense and mystery but the wild ride is very different. Adam Kindred, a college professor in London for a job interview, becomes an innocent bystander who suddenly and unknowingly gets involved in a conspiracy, while being pursued by both the police for the murder he didn’t commit, and by the criminals for the information he inadvertently took with him when he found the body.
Simultaneous plots keep the action moving, but at a civilized British pace: Adam becomes homeless on the Thames as he goes underground to keep his freedom; Mhouse, a prostitute with a young son, helps him after he is mugged and beaten – then steals his briefcase (with the files from the dead victim); Ingram Fryzer, head of a pharmaceutical company finds himself prematurely releasing an asthma drug – its safe use can only be verified by the missing documents; Rita, policewoman newly appointed to boat patrol, finds Adam’s river hideout, only to arrest his would-be assassin lying in wait instead. The title is aptly based on a scientific weather reference to mutating clouds…
“Ordinary thunderstorms have the capacity to transform themselves into multi-cell storms of ever growing complexity.”
Boyd keeps it all together with surprising connections among the characters. Just when Adam seems to have settled into his new undercover life – new girlfriend, new job, banking his money in a turf-covered hole near the river – he’s forced to run again and reinvent himself as a hospital orderly. The plot thickens…
Adam’s identity keeps changing until his original character disappears, with his baser instincts for survival morphing him into a new person. Throughout the trauma, the murders (there is more than one), and the fugitive life, who Adam really is becoming is questionable.
Although Boyd skewers the pharmaceutical companies, Adam never seems to recover from his identity crisis. Just when it seems Boyd is about to tie all the ribbons and end on a satisfying note, he choose reality. I didn’t like the ending, but the ride to get to it was fun.