Today’s best thriller writers on one hundred classics of the genre…
My goal is to eventually make my way through all of these must-read titles. These books have been around for so long and read by so many that another generic review from your average reader seems unnecessary. Instead, I thought it would be fun to take a look at what some of the experts have to say about the stories that paved the way for their own success… and how their perspective compares to my own reading experience. Today, I’m looking at Katherine Neville’s The Eight.
New York City, 1972 — A dabbler in mathematics and chess, Catherine Velis is also a computer expert for a Big Eight accounting firm. Before heading off to a new assignment in Algeria, Cat has her palm read by a fortune-teller. The woman warns Cat of danger. Then an antiques dealer approaches Cat with a mysterious offer: He has an anonymous client who is trying to collect the pieces of an ancient chess service, purported to be in Algeria. If Cat can bring the pieces back, there will be a generous reward.
The South of France, 1790 — Mireille de Remy and her cousin Valentine are young novices at the fortresslike Montglane Abbey. With France aflame in revolution, the two girls burn to rebel against constricted convent life — and their means of escape is at hand. Buried deep within the abbey are pieces of the Montglane Chess Service, once owned by Charlemagne. Whoever reassembles the pieces can play a game of unlimited power. But to keep the Game a secret from those who would abuse it, the two young women must scatter the pieces throughout the world…
“High adventure, suspense, misdirection, violence, sex – it’s all here.” Or so writes Shirley Kennet. And while all that may be true, it just doesn’t come together in a way that works for me.
The Eight does have a couple of great female leads, which I can only assume was even rarer in the ’80s than it is today. So, it’s got that going for it. And the history of and mystery surrounding the famous chess set are interesting, at least at first. We hear a story where Charlemagne becomes nearly possessed by whatever force this thing has; how does that not make you want to learn more?
Unfortunately, we never really do. Instead of learning about the origins and the power of the set, we just get two parallel stories about various characters’ efforts to reunite it. It’s all about the chase, with hardly any focus on the prize. And maybe that would work if the chase were a great one, but it isn’t. It has its moments, but I was too overwhelmed with its weaknesses to enjoy its strengths.
Clearly, others don’t share my opinion, including the author of the essay.
“Mirielle and Catherine are strong heroines, solving the puzzles and dealing with violence and dangerous journeys. They are the Black Queens, and in chess, the queen is the most powerful piece.… Neville established that women could hold their own in adventure tales…”
Kennet goes on to note the influence of The Eight in the rise of “quest-driven thrillers with historical backgrounds.” And if that is the case, then I guess I owe Neville some gratitude, as many of my favorite books fall into that category. This one, though, just isn’t for me.
Nine down, ninety-one to go…