There are echoes of Charles Cumming and John le Carre throughout THE DISTANCE, but it is not a spy or espionage novel per se. And the voice one hears throughout the book belongs only to Helen Giltrow, albeit channeled through the minds of the book’s two primary characters.
THE DISTANCE takes place mainly over the course of 25 dark and difficult days, which begin when two people who never expected to see each other again experience an encounter designed by one to the surprise of the other. It is Charlotte Alton who is the surprised one. Alton is a wealthy socialite who goes to all the right places and supports the serious cause of the week. She, however, has a hidden occupation. Alton, under the name “Karla,” is a cleaner of sorts. She wipes information, making individuals disappear off the radar as if they never existed. Her clientele, as one might expect, consists primarily of criminals. For them, Karla is a name, never a face. She broke that rule one time, with and for a man named Simon Johanssen, a former special-ops sniper who became a killer for hire. Johanssen was briefly a part of Karla’s life and then disappeared --- until now.
"THE DISTANCE is a complex but extremely sure-footed debut that blends espionage elements and crime fiction in the best possible ways while gently cajoling the reader into truly caring about the characters..."
As the meat of THE DISTANCE begins, it is Johanssen who designs their encounter in a manner that startles and unsettles Karla. What he requests startles her even more. As the story proceeds, the narrative is split between Johanssen and Karla. Johanssen has an assignment that requires he break into a special, maximum security detention center named The Program, murder one of the prisoners, and get out again. All three elements of the task seem to be nearly impossible, yet Karla agrees to aid him in his assignment, as much to protect him as to collect a fee. The facility, it develops, is under the de facto rule of a prisoner who is a mortal enemy of Johanssen’s, one who will kill him on sight only if he is fortunate.
Giltrow scatters questions and issues like breadcrumbs during the first half of the book. Why has Johanssen been selected for this particular mission? Why is a somewhat unlikely prisoner, at least at first blush, the target? Who wants the prisoner dead? Those are just a few of the tantalizing issues presented here, not to mention the methods by which Karla plans to get Johanssen into and out of The Program. Then there is The Program itself, an experimental facility that is run along the lines of a small, somewhat self-governing municipality. One could do a series based on The Program alone, but I, for one, am glad that Giltrow chose to focus her story as she did, keeping one guessing as to who was doing what to whom and why, until almost the very end.
THE DISTANCE is a complex but extremely sure-footed debut that blends espionage elements and crime fiction in the best possible ways while gently cajoling the reader into truly caring about the characters, particularly the complicated Karla, who is busily living two different lives while not being truly comfortable in either of them. You will want to spend some time with this one to appreciate all the twists and turns that Giltrow and her characters put you through.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on September 26, 2014