June 04, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

During the course of my recent trip to Manila, I read two books. The first, read from cover to cover during the trip over, was Sue Grafton's R is for Richocet, the latest (and 18th) in the "Alphabet Murder" series. There's not too much to be said about this book: it is what it is. It's an easy read with a plot that has just enough twists and turns to make it interesting. And the first-person narrator is someone readers have gotten to know over the course of the last 20-or-so years. (I started reading these around the time that the "D" volume came out, so I have been with Kinsey Millhone for quite some time.) It would have been nice had P.D. James' next novel been available. Alas, The Lighthouse isn't due to be published until November, so it wasn't ready for airplane reading. But the more prolific (and less demanding) Grafton will do in a pinch.

The book reserved for the ride home was more intriguing. It's called In the Company of Liars and is the second title from lawyer-turned-novelist David Ellis. (I have not read his debut, Line of Vision, which won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, but I will likely now seek it out.) Written Memento-style, it unfolds in reverse chronology, starting at the end and working its way back to the beginning. Initially, this seems like both a cheat and a gimmick. After all, how many surprises can there be when you know how things are going to wrap up? But give Ellis credit - he knows what he's doing and has things meticulously planned out. The result is that you may not know everything you think you know. The book contains a lot of surprises and is capable of confounding more than a few expectations. When I don't see a twist coming, I am appreciative - and there's one in these pages that blindsided me. And it works, by God!

In the Company of Liars concerns the web of deceit surrounding the death of lobbyist Sam Dillon and the subsequent murder trial of best-selling mystery novelist Allison Pagone. But there's more going on than meets the eye. Was Sam's death the result of a lover's quarrel? Was he involved in a scheme to bribe three U.S. Senators? Or was there something deeper, something involving a cocaine-addicted doctor and a well-funded group of Middle Eastern terrorists? And, as the old saying goes, just when you think you have everything figured out...

In the Company of Liars is not a masterpiece, but it offers a solid 360 pages of entertainment. It's long enough to allow for character development, but short enough that it doesn't require a major time commitment to read. I don't know if I would consider this "beach reading," however, since it requires concentration (such is the case with anything written using the reverse chronology method). And it's the kind of book that stands up to (demands?) a second reading. The thing I appreciated the most about In the Company of Liars is that Ellis has the guts to move away from the John Grisham-inspired literature equivalent of fast food (which bores me) and into new territory. Not since Len Deighton's Faith, Hope, and Charity trilogy have I been this engrossed in a thriller. If you enjoy this kind of book, In the Company of Liars is worth the money and time.