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Whiteout

Reviewed: May 23, 2006
By: Ken Follett
Publisher: Signet Books
469 pages, $10.99

I recently read a spoof of the thriller genre in which a fledgling author was advised to crank up the suspense in his novel by "setting a clock ticking".  This advice has been the mainstay of many a thriller over the years.

For example: There are only so many hours to get out of the Poseidon before it sinks. The asteroids will hit the Earth in a certain number of days. The millennium is coming and the Devil must be held off until the fateful moment passes.

On television, Jack Bauer only ever has 24 hours to solve whatever problem they've thrown at him, and we get it all in exquisite, minute by minute detail.

So, in Whiteout, Ken Follett starts the clock at 1 a.m. on Christmas Eve,and takes us through the next three days in the lives of his cast of characters.

His central character is Toni (Antonio) Gallo, an ex-police officer and now the security chief at Oxenford Medical, a company involved in life saving research on some very deadly viruses.

When we meet her, something has gone wrong. One of the scientists and one of the test rabbits is missing and there's a more than decent chance that it's carrying something that makes Ebola look like a 24 hour flu.

All of this is the teaser, of course, We are being up to know how dangerous the work can be. We are getting to see the main characters in action under pressure, so we can take their measure. We are learning why Toni's not a police officer any more and getting a hint of the affection and regard in which she holds the older man, Stanley Oxenford, who is her boss.

All of this is so we understand the stakes when Kit, the black sheep of the family and a computer whiz, stages a raid on the centre the next day in order to pay off an enormous gambling debt that he has racked up. Kit blames in all on his dad, of course, If the Old Man had just bailed him out (again) and not fired him after Toni caught him stealing from the firm, then he wouldn't have had to throw in with his loan shark in order to save his own life. With Kit, it's always someone else's fault.

The title refers to the storm which surrounds this part of the English countryside just as Kit and his mates are making their getaway after a robbery that did NOT go down at all as Kit had imagined. Indeed, as the holiday progresses and Kit finds himself trapped at the family estate with his family and his cohorts in crime, he comes to realize that he hasn't been at all smart, and that something more than mere theft is in the works.

Kit's response to this knowledge is typically Kit-like, and I'll leave you find out what that means.

All sorts of other things are going on at Steepfall, the family estate. The Oxenfords are quite the dysfunctional family, and the Christmas season seems to bring all the tensions to a boil, so things are in a right mess even before the arrival of Kit and the bad guys.

There's even a nice little coming of age story here, as young Craig discovers that there are things more important than snuggling with his delectable and willing step-cousin. He also learns that saving others sometimes involves actions which are much less tidy and easy than they seem when you see them in the movies.

I've been reading Ken Follett on and off since way back at Eye of the Needle. He's hard to classify because he doesn't stick to one type of book, but jumps from present day thrillers to war stories to tales that sometimes seem almost like romances. Perhaps this has kept him from gaining the profile of a Ludlum. However that may be, he's quite good at whatever he does, and when he sets the clock ticking you really do want to keep turning the pages until it winds down.

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