When you’re so seduced and comfortable and intrigued by the existing fictional landscape that you are plenty satisfied with the questions and the momentum of the story.
When you’re into the story but completely settled with all the existing parameters.
You’re so comfortable, in fact, that you aren’t thinking twist.
And, then, wham—gotcha.
By even starting out talking about the twist, I fear I’ll ruin the fun for others. It’s even difficult to review The Big Exit (such a doubly delicious title) without wanting to splatter all over the review space about what David Carnoy manages to pull off. But I’ll restrain myself.
The Big Exit is fun for lots of reasons long before, you know, that moment. Carnoy’s got an old-school Raymond Chandler vibe going with a story set in the dot-com world and Silicon Valley start-ups. At least, the set-up is old-school triangles and cover-ups. Love, greed, etcetera.
Richie Forman is our guy. He was big in dot-com marketing before the night of his own bachelor party, when he was arrested at the scene of a car crash that killed a young woman. With a high blood alcohol level, Richie gets arrested but he is pretty sure he wasn’t the one driving. He spends years in prison and while he’s behind bars his ex-fiancé takes up with the other guy who was in the car, his former best friend Mark McGregor. In fact, Beth Hill and Mark McGregor are married.
As The Big Exit starts Richie is looking to fill a job opening at The Exoneration Foundation, a firm dedicated to freeing innocent men from prison. He’s also making a living as a Frank Sinatra impersonator (a very colorful undercurrent throughout the book). But then McGregor turns up dead, with the word HACK scrawled in blood on the garage floor near his body. The cops quickly circle around both Richie and Beth as suspects and Carnoy gives good screen time to a full cast of interesting characters. There’s the prosecutor who put Richie away, the accident investigator, and a muckraking journalist who covers Silicon Valley, among others. Carnoy, who is executive editor of CNET, a website that reviews technology products, knows this turf well.
Carnoy shifts points of view, circles around, shows us different angles. The plot is one part legal caper, one part police procedural, and one part James M. Cain-ish darkness. Carnoy gives us plenty of Richie but the detectives and lawyers play a big role, too, and all the shifting keeps us nicely off balance. Detective Sergeant Hank Madden almost takes over the story. “In law-enforcement years, he’s ancient, a relic at sixty-two. After his promotion to detective sergeant last year, he retired the gold wire-framed, oversized glasses that his colleagues liked to suggest could be carbon-dated back to somewhere between the Disco and New Wave eras.” Madden has a drop foot from childhood polio but has a “minor act of heroism” that has come to define is career and he’s staying on at work beyond the point at which it makes financial sense, given potential retiree pay. It was Madden who was at the scene of the “Bachelor Disaster,” the case that would go to trial and end with a jury siding with McGregor, pinning the blame on Forman.
As the end comes down, Richie Forman with a splitting headache and his hands cuffed together around the legs of a sink in a laundry room, all hope is certainly lost and then, well, there are only a few pages left and you’re not going to stop before finishing this one.
The Big Exit is complex, memorable and fun. And forget I said anything about a twist.