The Chain will tie you in knots. It’s tense from the first few paragraphs. The premise is chilling. The jeopardy is real; it’s jeopardy on steroids. So your daughter has been kidnapped? The only way to ensure her release is to pay a big ransom, even though it’s not really about the money, and successfully kidnap another child. Got it? Good. No cops. No reporters. “Those are deal-breakers.” You better get moving (pronto!) and also know that every move you make (every breath you take) will be monitored. The chain must not be broken. The chain will not be broken. Yeah, you’re a victim. Get over it. Very soon you’ll be a criminal. It’s the only way out.
Adrian McKinty’s diabolical premise is told in brisk, punchy fashion. The setting is Plum Island, north of Boston, and nearby towns. It’s a week past Halloween. The latest link in the chain is Rachel Klein, divorced mother of Kylie. Kylie is thirteen. Kylie gets kidnapped in the opening moments of The Chain. She’s waiting at her bus stop and drops her phone when a man in a ski mask points a gun at her chest.
What would you do if you were Rachel? McKinty makes us feel every one of Rachel’s panicked reactions as she follows the instructions to keep her daughter alive. There are burner phones to buy, search engines to download, corners of the dark web to explore, and twenty-five thousand dollars’ worth of Bitcoin to buy and transfer. What’s Bitcoin? What’s the dark web? If that’s not enough, this high-stakes emergency means Rachel must skip the scheduled appointment with her oncologist, who has seen a problem in her blood work.
For the first half The Chain we flip back and forth both Rachel and Kylie, who proves resilient and wily in captivity. Rachel needs to identify a target, quickly come up with a plan for a kidnapping, and pull it off. And of course Rachel’s success depends on the parents of her kidnap victim following the same wicked instructions Rachel is expected to follow. When it’s clear those parents have decided to go improv, Rachel and brother-in-law Pete (a Marine Corps vet with substance abuse issues) need to step in and, well, make adjustments.
McKinty piles jeopardy on jeopardy. Nothing, naturally, goes smoothly. McKinty goes from short staccato bursts of tension to lyrical scene-setting. And, along the way, he slips in references to Camus, H.P. Lovecraft, Schopenauer, and Urusala Le Guin (“Tombs of Atuan”). And, much later on in The Chain (in a second section that explains the roots of the terrible scheme) there’s a reference Sarah Bakewell and The Existentialist Café, among others. As fast a pace as The Chain sets, McKinty leaves behind breadcrumbs for a larger point about choices, life in focus, and human capability in dire circumstances.
If Bakewell is a clue, there’s this relevant quote from The Existentialist Café as Bakewell contemplates the messages of Jean-Paul Sartre: “Nothing stops us but our own free choosing. If we want to survive, we have to decide to live.”
From the moment The Chain starts, you will feel that your own free choosing is very much at stake. And, like Rachel, even with death very close at hand, you will feel very much alive (but try to tell yourself they’re only words on a page).