Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Book Review: Severance Package, by Duane Swierczynski
With Severance Package, Duane Swierczynski, author of The Blonde, The Wheelman, and Marvel Comics' X-Men series Cable, has written a furiously-paced crime thriller. Severance Package concerns seven employees of a financial services company called to a Saturday morning meeting in a downtown Philadelphia high rise. Like much about this novel, no character is exactly what he or she first seems. No plot point is presented without complication.
The story shifts into warp speed early on when the boss, David, calls the Saturday meeting to order by informing his underlings that the floor they are on has been secured so nobody can enter or exit without triggering nasty poisonous gas. Their company, actually a front for a covert government agency, is getting shut down. And instead of laying people off, this company's downsizing severance package includes death. All employees are instructed to either drink a cup of poisoned champagne or take a bullet to the head. Without giving much more of the plot away, I can tell you that only one employee goes for the champagne, thinking it's some kind of twisted corporate trust game. When one of the underlings shoots the boss, all hell breaks loose.
As far as characters, there's Molly, the boss's mousy assistant. Jamie, the word nerd who writes press releases. Ethan, ex-military, ex-special forces. Nichole, a spreadsheet workhorse who turns out to be pretty handy with a gun. And so on. The characters are just above stock, but it's not really character development you come to Severance Package looking for. It's action. And this book's got it.
Over the next 263 pages each employee scrambles around the building's 36th floor trying not to die. The timeline of the novel only arcs a couple hours, if that. It's a testament to Swierczynski's pacing that he keeps all his balls in the air expertly, even introducing a hapless security guard who would rather not have to play hero. All the while a pair of men in Edinburgh work a bank of surveillance cameras, keeping check on the unfolding action. It's visceral storytelling that has roots in the cross-cutting style of suspense movies and the dramatic, stylish pull of left-to-right comic book frames. It makes sense then that the pages of the book are peppered with black and white illustrations by Dennis Calero.
It's a body count story, and these are by nature not heavy on the character development. From Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians to Koushun Takami's Battle Royale, there's an inherent drama in finding out who dies next and how. But it's low-calorie, binge-and-purge fiction, with the thrill coming during the reading, not afterwards.
So that means it's all about the ride. And this novel offers a doozy, full of plot twists, double crosses, daring escapes, and frenetic moments where characters you thought were dead come back into play. Taken at this level, the ride is entertainingly fast and well-drawn, and at times almost believable. I recommend reading the book quickly. If you put it down for too long, the plot holes begin to burn away at the left side of your brain.
Violent and fast, giddy and gory, there's a lot to like about Severance Package. Take a ride.