Waiting for Sunrise

Sometimes even when you are minding your own business, you can get into trouble. Lysander Rief has no idea that his quiet existence in Vienna is about to become a nightmare in William Boyd’s Waiting for Sunrise. Rief, an itinerate British actor, has come to the Vienna of Freud in 1913 to find the cure for his anorgasmia. After about one hundred pages of civilized banter, psychoanalysis, and an affair with a beautiful artist, Lysander finds himself an unwilling fugitive and a conspirator.

After his lover, Hettie Bull, cures him of his sexual dysfunction, she falsely accuses him of rape, and Lysander finds himself in a Viennese jail.  He escapes from Vienna with the help of a British diplomat and a military attaché, forfeiting the bail posted by the British Embassy.  Although he manages to reprise his role as an actor in London for a while, World War I intervenes and he enlists.  Suddenly, the two Brits who had helped him escape in Vienna, have reappeared and are demanding he repay his debt – seems they are really spies, enlisting Lysander for a new role:

“My life seems to be running on a track I have nothing to do with — I’m a passenger on a train but I have no idea of the route it’s taking or its final destination.”

Lysander fits his new role as undercover sleuth well, using his former life as an actor to create characters and disguises as he goes behind enemy lines to seek an elusive counterspy. When he finds himself in the midst of crossfire,  Boyd gives his actions credibility, with a smattering of a reluctant James Bond – all lots of fun, especially when Hattie reenters the action and his gay uncle becomes an accomplice.

After a slow start, Boyd delivers a very British spy novel with colorful characters and a plot that will have you wondering who the real spies are.   The time and tone is Downton Abbey with a smattering of Alfred Hitchcock’s 39 Steps.  If you like a little espionage with your crumpets, Waiting for Sunrise might be just your cup of tea.

Ordinary Thunderstorms

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.