The novel begins with the name "Jake Pataski". Not an auspicious start, unless you are hoping for a stereotypical
detective thriller. A few lines later, the hero’s name changed to "Jack Pataski", and my optimism grew, only to be dashed
when I realised it was a typo. (This was a pre-publication copy, and such errors are allowed, indeed obligatory.)
To drop the attempt at humour for a moment, there is nothing actually wrong with the opening page,
or indeed with the rest of the book. Openings are tricky things, and this one draws the reader in as a good beginning should.
It does, however, read like the start of most of the detective/thriller novels you might pick up on any bookstall, with nothing
particular to make you feel that this is going to be a book whose plot you will remember after you have put it down. The danger
is, of course, that you will put it down before you get to the nitty-gritty.
It also reads like a first novel, or at any rate the first in a potential series. There is
really no need to spell out to the reader that the hero’s wife has gone to Florida and he is following on. And Mr Pataski,
unlike his name, does not, on first meeting, strike one as the kind of character who might inspire a single adventure, let
alone a series.
"Too old for kids, too young for grandchildren, as he often thought. However, with one son in his early twenties
and the other in his late teens, he could never be quite sure about the grandchildren business."
978 1 84753 828 4
Retail price £6.80
Do we really need to know this? Soon Jake has boarded his plane for Florida and is conversing about Verdi’s
operas with his neighbour. A good move. All private detectives/secret agents these days are supposed to be interested in music,
from Harry Bosch with his jazz to Elvis Cole with his George Thorogood. Why not Jake Pataski and opera?
What I’m saying here is not that I don’t like the book – actually I do – but pointing
out possible explanations for why it hasn’t been picked up by a major publisher (and I’m making a big assumption
in thinking that John Hamilton Allen has tried them). Publishers’ readers don’t often look beyond the first few
pages. They are looking for something different, and they don’t want to wait all day for it. Yes, crime fiction is a
major seller, but there is no shortage of it on the market. To find a following, authors need to offer a new approach, or
at the very least a gimmick. Mr Allen’s nice, smooth narrative style makes the reader’s life easy, which is a
plus, but he does not challenge our imaginations -- until the point when we realise that Jake Pataski is a red herring.
The real story is a complex and frightening one. Betrayed by his (female) Secretary of State, President King
replaces her with a man whose loyalty is beyond doubt. So far, so predictable. While the President’s team are deciding
what to do next, their aspirations are thrown into doubt by the predictions of a mysterious computer program. Have you guessed
where we’re going yet? If I mentioned that the overthrown Secretary of State is surnamed "Calder", and President King’s
first name is Duncan, would that give you a clue? I’ll say no more except that Mr Allen clearly has thought about
the need for a gimmick, and has saved himself a lot of effort to boot. Okay, so it’s been done before, in many different
settings, most recently by the BBC with a chef as the central character. It still works because it’s a classic plot.
The remaining question is, does American Ambition do it justice?
Yes and no, I think. Setting this classic plot in the context of present-day American power politics is a
master-stroke. I’m not entirely sure that no one else thought of it first, but it works. Subtle distinctions are made
between the conduct of power struggles in our modern technology-fuelled terrorism-threatened world and the way things worked
in the middle ages, ensuring that the turn of events is more than merely plausible. Additional twists ensure that, even if
we are familiar with the story, there are surprises in store. A sneaky little epilogue underlines the parallels with the real
21st century, and brings us back to where we started.
The narrative is effective and never dull, but neither does the author truly explore the dark recesses of
a mind where ambition has wiped out all but that most primitive of emotions -- guilt. Grace Finlay visits a psychiatrist,
but her musings cannot compare with the poetry of the original, and indeed this is not Mr Hall’s purpose. In American
Ambition, he is not attempting a work of genius, but an intricate and suspenseful mystery thriller. The question that
occurs to me is, where does he go from here? I can’t really see this approach working for A Midsummer Night’s
Review by Deborah Fisher