Hardcover, 357 pg.
Read: July 17-18, 2019
The house is musty and empty. A thin layer of dust coats the kitchen surfaces. No one has been in here since early September. She closes the kitchen door behind her and explores the home.
Three uninteresting levels and a very interesting basement with brick walls and a concrete floor and nothing in it but a washing machine, a dryer, and a boiler. The house is held up by a series of concrete pillars and she could, she thinks in disgust, chain someone to one of those pillars. She checks out the little window above the dryer. She’ll cover that with a board she’ll get from the hardware store in town.
Rachel shivers With a mixture of fascination and revulsion. How can she think about this sort of thing so glibly? Is that what trauma does to you?
It reminds her again of the chemo days. The numbness. The feeling of plunging into the abyss and falling, falling, falling forever.
How do I add anything to the discussion about The Chain? How do I say something that hasn’t been said by (seemingly) everyone this side of the English Channel? Honestly, how do I say anything about this book that left me speechless, reeling, and nigh-despairing multiple times? How can I say anything meaningful about this book without giving anything away?
In order: Probably can’t. Forget that. Good question—very carefully and with a focus on brevity, I guess. Here goes.
A lot of this first paragraph is well-known, this book has been talked a lot about. But even knowing this, I wasn’t prepared for the first few chapters as McKinty put flesh on the premise.
Rachel O’Neill, nearly a year into remission, is on her way to see her oncologist about some blood test results. It can’t be good news that he’s making her come in for, right? On her way, she gets a phone call that will change her life—her daughter has been kidnapped. To get her back, she has to do a few things: 1. Pay an almost impossibly high ransom (note the use of “almost”); 2. Kidnap some other child; and 3. Wait for that child’s parents to kidnap someone and then Kylie will be released unharmed. If Law Enforcement (of any kind) is involved or any of the three steps are violated, Kylie will die. If not, she’ll be free to go straightaway. It’s clearly understood, but not really stated (immediately, anyway)—once Kylie is home Rachel will do anything the Chain tells her to do in the future—or . . .
That’s pretty much the high point of the book for Rachel. The first part of the book concerns itself with this horrible scenario. What corners will she cut? What laws (actual written laws, or the understood conventions of society) will she bend and break? What lengths will she go to in order to save her daughter? In the end, she takes all the necessary steps to secure her daughter’s release, because what other choice does she have? And as she thinks as she stalks a potential kidnapping victim:
She looks at her watch. Not yet five o’clock. This morning when she woke up, she had been a completely different person. As J. G. Ballard pointed out, civilization is just a thin, fragile veneer over the law of the jungle: Better you than me. Better your kid than my kid.
(I should point out, she’s not being pretentious, nor is McKinty taking liberties to force allusions into the character. Rachel’s a philosophy instructor, that’s how she thinks—a brilliant bit of characterization because she can retreat to thoughtful insights as a way of dealing with the stark reality she finds herself in)
During this part, while Kylie is (rightly) terrified, I generally actually felt worse for Rachel than her daughter. Which I hope doesn’t say something horrible about me—I think it says more about where McKinty puts the reader: smack-dab in the middle of Rachel’s perspective while seeing Kylie from the outside.
The second part of the book picks up months later, showing us the fall-out of the encounter with The Chain in the lives of those we met in Part One. For good reasons as well as convention, this is something that Crime Fiction does too rarely. It’s not just a murder, it’s the shattered lives of those close to the victim that will not fully recover; it’s not just a burglary, it’s the loss of a feeling of personal security that takes people years to come to grips with; and so on. McKinty allows us to see the repercussions of all the choices made and actions taken by Rachel (and The Chain regarding her).
Which is just devastating, really. Again, the panic and terror that assaulted her in the first few minutes after receiving the phone call is the high point for this poor mother.
We also get a little—not exhaustively, but enough—backstory concerning those running The Chain in this part. McKinty doesn’t make any effort to glamorize them or explain away their evil. Yes, there might have been things in their pasts that shaped them, but they chose this atrocious path knowing full well what they were doing.
I don’t want to talk too much about the book or the characters—I’ll end up ruining something if I do. We get to know Rachel pretty well—she’s intelligent, caring, and tenacious. She’s also tired, emotionally worn out after the medical and personal events of the years immediately before this. You can usually say this about the victim of crime (in reality or in fiction), but she really didn’t deserve any of this. It’s easy to second guess what she does, the compromises she makes and what she abandons. But it’s impossible not to empathize with her.
On the cover, there’s a quotation from Don Winslow, calling this “Jaws for parents.” Before he wrote Say Nothing, someone gave Brad Parks some advice that he should write about what terrifies him the most. I don’t know if anyone gave McKinty that advice or something like it, but it sure reads that way. I can’t imagine there’s not a parent alive who can read this without worrying about their kids, and reconsidering how closely to track their movements and activities.
Before executing her kidnapping plan, Rachel says:
“But even if it all goes right, . . . it’ll still be absolutely terrible.”
For her, that’s true. For the reader? It’s absolutely false. The tension is dialed up to 11, the pacing is relentless, the stakes are high enough that the reader should make sure their blood pressure prescriptions are filled. The Chain is as compelling and engrossing as you could want. It’s a near-perfect thriller that doesn’t let up. If you haven’t read it yet, you need to fix that pronto.