Nicky Pellegrino feels let down by an Aussie thriller that needs oomph.
"Four friends ... four secrets", the cover declares and for some reason that - and the fact Kirsten Tranter's new novel A Common Loss (HarperCollins, $39.99) is set in Las Vegas - was enough to make me think I'd stumbled on a cross between The Hangover movies and Donna Tartt's A Secret History. As it turns out I wasn't far wrong although, in my opinion, this novel isn't as good as either of them.
Tranter is an Australian novelist who is making her name writing psychological thrillers. Her first one, The Legacy, was published to great acclaim a couple of years ago and this is the follow-up.
It's the story of a bunch of former college students who meet annually for a boys' trip to Vegas. Charismatic Dylan has been the leader of the group, the fixer of problems and the glue that held them together.
Now he is gone, killed in a road accident, and the four remaining friends - Tallis, Brian, Cameron and Elliot - are taking their first trip without him.
Elliot, our narrator, is beginning to question his friendship with the group, wondering if he even likes them. He's about to learn he doesn't know any of them very well - most especially the late Dylan - for no one is quite what they seem.
In Las Vegas each man receives a mysterious envelope containing information about a long-buried secret with the potential to destroy their careers, relationships or families. The sender is found to be Dylan's secret half-brother, Colin, who has stumbled on the careful records the dead man kept. Dylan was party to all his friends' most shameful secrets and he kept the evidence. Now Colin dreams of a bigger, better life than working in a casino and has decided upon blackmail as the way to get it.
Under stress, Elliot is forced to look back and reassess everything about his friendships.
"I realised with a nauseating lurch that this was only the beginning, this new reckoning of the past, and it would be Dylan's role, his words and gestures and expressions, that I would be forced to re-evaluate the most seriously," he tells us.
As the scales are falling from his eyes, Elliot is also busy enjoying the sights and nightlife of Vegas with Brian's alluring new girlfriend, Cynthia - a thread of the story that never seems to go anywhere. And that's one of the problems with this novel - the premise is good but the suspense just isn't there. There's too much fluff about the Bellagio Fountains and bits of the Berlin Wall, too much time spent drinking in bars, and rather too much of Elliot's over-thinking, for the pace to really crack along.
Also, none of the characters truly engaged me and I couldn't decide if that was because Tranter hasn't entirely pulled off writing from a male perspective or whether the shallowness of Las Vegas leached into everything else.
A Common Loss is a diverting enough thriller and as a treatise on male friendship it has plenty to say. It's well written and smart. Yet, from start to finish, I felt as if it ought to have been a whole lot better than it actually was ... perhaps even as good at The Hangover crossed with A Secret History.