Gregg Hurwitz’s latest continues his line of thrillers with inventive but relatable plots, enhanced with convincing and detailed characterizations. Oh, and there are generous amounts of action and suspense as well. In other words, THE SURVIVOR is a keeper.
After no small amount of soul searching, Nate Overbay climbs out of the 11th-floor bathroom window of the Union Bank building in Southern California and onto the ledge, and contemplates his chances of hitting the trash dumpster below when he steps off to his death. Then he hears gun shots. Looking inside, he sees a group of masked men have shot a few of the bank occupants and are holding the rest hostage while they break into the vault of safety deposit boxes.
Knowing he has nothing to lose, Nate re-enters the bank and, heralding his former military training, takes down each of the armed robbers. The last thief standing, however, leaves Nate a chilling warning: “He will make you pay in ways you can’t imagine.”
Withholding the real reason for being in the bank that morning, Nate is quickly celebrated as a hero. But it isn’t long before he is abducted by the mastermind behind the aborted bank heist — a Ukrainian mobster named Pavlo who is the very definition of savage — and given an ultimatum: Nate must steal the object the robbers were after and deliver it to Pavlo, or Pavlo will kill Nate’s estranged wife and teenage daughter.
Nate may have given up on his own life, but he still deeply loves his family. So he attempts to learn the nature of the object Pavlo is after, disrupt Pavlo’s plans again, and protect his wife and daughter from harm — all the while under the vigilant watch of the man’s ruthless gang.
Right from the get-go, Hurwitz grabs our attention with the ironic twist of a suicide attempt suddenly transformed into a heroic act. All the while, however, he never lets us forget that Nate’s brazen bravery is fueled by hopelessness rather than civic-minded outrage. It’s an unforgettable sequence that contains some of Hurwitz’s best writing.
But it’s also one tough act to follow. Yet, realizing that we must know how it all came about, Hurwitz fulfills the obligation with a flashback that traces Nate’s adult life and reveals how his promising future was altered after he returned from Iraq a broken man. Then we learn how Pavlo’s tortured upbringing made him into kind of man with no regard for human life and an unwavering devotion exclusively to his fellow criminals.
The time needed for this kind of deep characterization could easily be the kiss of death to a thriller, especially one that starts as strongly as this. Fortunately, Hurwitz is as creative here as he is with his plot ideas; he keeps things lively and fascinating with a touching combination of humor and tragedy in Nate’s background, and a relentless intensity with Pavlo’s. The pace is inevitably slower, but it never fails to keep us involved.
By the time Nate undertakes his plan to find the desired object and thwart Pavlo’s plans, we discover that the background has made for a richer reading experience. From this point on, we cling to every succeeding moment, right up to the climatic and shocking resolution.
Hurwitz may not enjoy the popularity of those thriller authors who often dominate the national best-seller lists, but he is a vastly superior writer than most of them and more than worthy of such success. For proof, you need go no further than THE SURVIVOR. —Alan Cranis