I hadn’t read much of FIFTY MICE before I started hearing an all-but-forgotten song playing repeatedly in my head: “Twenty Six Miles (Santa Catalina)” by The Four Preps, a vocal group that was popular in the ’50s and ’60s, and was about a guy trying to get from the West Coast to Santa Catalina, the island of romance. Indeed, a reference to that classic Top 40 tune worms its way into Daniel Pyne’s latest novel about three-quarters of the way into the third-person present tense narrative, almost as if the author was reading my mind. It’s not a two-way street, however. Despite some shortcomings, FIFTY MICE is loaded with surprises, twists and turns that kept this reader guessing until the very end.
The book takes place almost entirely on Santa Catalina in the town of Avalon, which has a real-world counterpart. It begins, though, in Los Angeles. Jay Johnson is stepping onto a train when he performs an act of kindness that serves as a catalyst for his quick and brilliantly executed abduction. When he wakes up, he finds himself isolated and interrogated, caught in a catch-22 with a succession of federal types who want to know what he knows. Johnson, as we come to learn, is a bit of an underachiever, a former lab researcher who is a telephone salesman in a boiler room-type of operation. He is kind of engaged to a woman named Stacy but is nonetheless hesitant of commitment.
"FIFTY MICE is loaded with surprises, twists and turns that kept this reader guessing until the very end."
Johnson has no idea what the Feds want, and in due and quick force finds himself 26 miles away, with a new name, identity and occupation, in some sort of program that is half-prison, half-witness protection. The new identity consists of playing husband and father to a very angry and distant woman who is also in the program and a precocious little girl who may or may not be her daughter. The occupation is even more interesting: Johnson is given an independently owned and barely successful DVD store to operate, a job that gives him the opportunity to watch films popular and obscure and meet a few of the island’s quirkier inhabitants.
Johnson wants off the island and spends a great deal of his waking hours observing, calculating and planning. The problem is that the life he had has been effectively all but erased. If he knew what his captors/guards wanted, he would tell them. But he can’t. However, he soon begins to recover memories that may or may not be true and becomes certain of one thing: he can’t trust anyone.
FIFTY MICE will seem vaguely familiar on several levels. There are elements of “The Prisoner”miniseries, with a touch of “The Americans” and “Nowhere Man,” and just a pinch of Dennis Lehane’s SHUTTER ISLAND and William Goldman’s MARATHON MAN thrown in as well.
Also, the book does require some suspension of disbelief. The town of Avalon is a semi-permeable membrane, if you will. The folks in the so-called “witness protection program” can’t get out (at least apparently), but tourists and others seem to be able to get in, so I suppose that accounts for the lengths to which the federal authorities running the program will go to set up new identities for their charges. Since all of Avalon’s regular residents seem to be in on the gag, and Internet contact, social media, cell phones and the like seem to be cut off for communication purposes, why bother? Don’t these same government types screen for threats from without, such as the folks from whom these selfsame witnesses need to be protected? The biggest problem, though, is the convolutions, gentle and otherwise, to which Johnson’s captors go to extract the information from him --- the information that is buried (or not) in his self-conscious. This may sound harsh, but can’t anyone find a board, a lever, a bucket and some water? Why go to these lengths?
That said, Daniel Pyne’s cinematic chops are on full and brilliant display here. Pyne has been involved in some of my favorite films (Pacific Heights) and television series (the iconic “Miami Vice”). Even as I was doubting or questioning some of what was going on, I could see the events unfolding on the screen. If the biggest fault of FIFTY MICE is that it has more potential as a film than as a novel, then that indeed is a small complaint.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 8, 2015