There are many reasons to like Ridley Pearson, chief among them being his ability to constantly attempt and embrace the new. He has most recently favored his readers with the Walter Fleming series; before that, there were a bunch of stand-alone works, the long-running Lou Boldt series, books for young readers, and novels written under pseudonyms…he has done it all, and then some. The “then some?” He has played in a band for 20 years (if you didn’t know that, Google “The Rock Bottom Remainders” for a surprise).
Anyway, back to embracing the new. Pearson’s latest novel, THE RISK AGENT, is solid, reliable Pearson in a whole new suit and country. The country is China, where Pearson recently spent two semesters teaching creative writing. This is the first in a projected series, and if it's any indication of what's to follow, I would happily wait patiently for each one with my cold, wet nose pressed up against the bookstore door glass.
"THE RISK AGENT is full of action, twists and turns, double-crosses, and good old-fashioned thrills. And while smartly written, it never threatens to collapse under the weight of its own gravitas."
The premise is simple enough. A Chinese national named Lu Hao, employed by an American construction company called the Berthold Group, is kidnapped off the street in Shanghai. We don’t know why, of course, at least not immediately, though Pearson drops us a breadcrumb or two in the first couple of pages to lead us to the conclusion that there might be a little more to Hao than immediately meets the eye. One of those crumbs is a gentleman named Clete Danner, Hao’s security detail who is kidnapped as well. This starts the clock ticking, because kidnapping an American in China does not a guarantee a long and prosperous life. As is noted early on in an executive meeting in the China offices of Rutherford Risk, anyone who does so is better off burying the abductee than keeping him.
And what is Rutherford Risk? It is the security contractor for Berthold. Rutherford specializes in hostage negotiation and retrieval, and time is of the essence for getting Hao and Danner back --- and preferably intact --- before a very serious deadline occurs within a week. Matters are somewhat complicated insofar as private investigation is illegal in China (Charlie Chan notwithstanding); Rutherford is therefore going to have to gather its information clandestinely. Navigating through the morass of laws, customs and corruption represents further problems. In order to do so, Rutherford recruits a couple of very different but extremely competent individuals to accomplish its aims. Grace Chu is a forensic accountant, one of the best there is at what she does, which is following trails of money; John Knox is a very dangerous civilian with an unparalleled knowledge of the street culture of Shanghai and expertise in combat of all sorts. Together they make an odd pair of fish out of water, up against adversaries and a culture that are against them at every turn.
As the storyline plays out hour by hour and day by day, Knox and Chu realize that there is no one they can trust, even as they form an interesting alliance bound by employment, mutual interest, and perhaps something more. And once the deadline passes, things get even more interesting.
THE RISK AGENT is full of action, twists and turns, double-crosses, and good old-fashioned thrills. And while smartly written, it never threatens to collapse under the weight of its own gravitas. If you haven’t read anything by Pearson for a while, this is the perfect way to simultaneously renew old acquaintances and acquire a new reading addiction.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on June 29, 2012