I find it tough to review thrillers because, frankly, there often isn’t much beyond an enticing, exciting plot to review. Thrillers tell fast-moving stories in which the hero/heroine is caught up in events that throw his or her life out of control. The trick for the thriller writer is to make the protagonist interesting and compelling enough to follow through the story–without hampering the action. Character development is often less crucial to the story than setting and plot development. I should probably say what I’m about to say more than once so I’m not misunderstood: This isn’t a criticism of thrillers. I enjoy thrillers just as I enjoy traditional mysteries and the occasional sex-soaked erotic novel. A novel doesn’t have to be a National Book Award winner to be a good read.
When I was offered the opportunity to review The Hypnotist, M.J. Rose’s genre-blend of a thriller, I accepted it immediately. Rose honed her writing skills through a long line of popular erotic thrillers before publishing The Reincarnationist–a Dan Brown-style thriller with plenty of historical content–in 2007. I should note here that I only got ten pages into the DaVinci Code before throwing it against the wall. The plot, I hear, is brilliant, but I couldn’t get past the amateurish prose. (Didn’t see the film, either.) There’s nothing amateurish about Rose’s prose, and one of its most compelling qualities is its thorough character development.
The Hypnotist opens with a flashback–always a risky proposition, but one that works here–of a young Lucian Glass discovering that his girlfriend, Solange Jacobs, has been brutally attacked in her father’s art gallery during a robbery. Twenty years later, in the novel’s present action, Glass is forced to relive the trauma of Solange’s death when the Matisse painting that was stolen in the robbery shows up–in tatters–at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. While Glass’s emotional journey is at the heart of The Hypnotist, the plot is driven by the mystery surrounding an ancient Chrystelephantine sculpture of Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep. Hypnos is not only a valuable piece of art and culture, but may be one of the keys to a coveted set of Memory Tools–objects which ostensibly give a person access to their past lives. The custody battle between the museum, which claims ownership of the sculpture, and the Iranian government turns deadly when the Iranians decide that their best chance to acquire it is by terrorist means. Perhaps I’ve made the plot sound simple. It is not. Rose also covers an enormous amount of territory here–including the past-life regressions of both Lucian and a young girl named Veronica. Their stories are critical to the novel’s violent, extensive denouement.
Rose is masterful at character creation, and the extensive cast of characters in The Hypnotist is one of the novel’s greatest strengths. Unlike many lesser thriller authors, Rose creates characters whose personalities are able to drive a novel’s action forward. In The Hypnotist, I was particularly drawn to Ali Samimi, an Iranian heavily involved in the not-so-legal plot to acquire Hypnos; he strains at and then slowly destroys the bonds securing him to his Iranian bosses. Samimi is one of those characters who looks much like an ancillary character, but creates decisive movement in the story. I wanted more of this man whose primary goal in life is “to find a way to stay in America.” Samimi’s every action is precisely aimed at that goal, resulting in some satisfyingly surprising plot developments. Somewhat less compelling is Emeline, who becomes Lucian Glass’s love interest. Glass is intensely attracted to her, but he’s not sure if it’s because of who she is, or who she might be–the reincarnation of Solange. So many of Emeline’s mannerisms and actions are like Solange’s that her very existence plunges Glass into a constant state of emotional chaos. For reasons that become obvious near the end of the novel, Rose keeps much of Emeline’s character hidden from the reader, but that didn’t keep me from wanting to know more about her early in the novel.
From the ancient Middle East to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to Vienna and Los Angeles, Rose rarely lets the action rest. The story makes enormous jumps in the time it takes to turn a page. Distractible readers might find the many threads tough to follow, and with some four hundred pages to work with, Rose is able to take her time weaving those threads together. I confess that even I was initially a tad overwhelmed by The Hypnotist’s sprawling plot. The story of how Hypnos arrived at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a complicated one, and the history of the search for the Memory Tools is similarly complex. But the histories–though fabricated–are thorough. Rose has done her homework. My guess is that most readers who pick up such a hefty book will be not only ready for The Hypnotist’s complexity, but will be grateful for it. There are plenty of plot surprises here. Some are even flat-out jaw-dropping, and delightfully over-the-top.
The Hypnotist is the third novel in The Reincarnationist series. It’s often difficult to immerse oneself in a new series novel when one hasn’t read previous installments in the series, but The Hypnotist–after a few slender reminders that the major players are Dr. Malachai Samuels of the Phoenix Foundation, which attempts to explore past-life regression through its hypnosis work with children, F.B.I agent Lucian Glass of the Art Crime Team, and the list of ancient Memory Tools that everyone seems to want–functions well as a standalone thriller.
Not to be sexist, but I think it’s fair to say that the internationally-themed thriller business is dominated by men. It’s refreshing to see Rose’s work get the publishing exposure it deserves. Above, I referred to The Hypnotist as a genre-blend thriller. But maybe that’s not a fair description. Perhaps The Hypnotist shouldn’t be described as any sort of thriller…perhaps it’s just a good book.