Publishers are always in search of "The Next." The Next Harry Potter. The Next Twilight. The Next Dan Brown. And with the release of Taylor Stevens's debut novel, The Informationist, her publisher clearly has designs to position Stevens's heroine, information bounty hunter Vanessa Michael Munroe, as The Next Lisbeth Salander.
Occasionally the shoe fits, other times it feels forced, like squeezing on a too-tight shoe just to impress, but this doesn't prohibit The Informationist from being a page-turning thriller that sets up Munroe as a likable, flawed character in what promises to be a strong series.
Munroe is an expert at infiltrating cultures, working both inside and outside the system, working for governments and for private contractor. Like Salander, she's more than comfortable on a speeding motorcycle and has no qualms about exacting her own brand of justice in the most vicious and often gruesome ways possible. Like Salander, she can often appear androgynous, and as she tells an inquiring man, "Most of my clients call me Michael."
After an opening set in Ankara, Turkey, the story begins proper as Munroe is offered a job tracking down the missing Emily Burbank, daughter of oil tycoon Richard Burbank, whose company, Titan Exploration, is based out of Houston. Munroe, we learn, suffered through a lawless and dangerous childhood, during which she was able to escape to Dallas (under murky circumstances) and begin her life and career anew:
And so she'd grown up untamed, the local children as playmates, her playground the dirt roads that wound through the small hillside town. She ran with the others, ragtag and barefoot, kicking deflated soccer balls towards imaginary goals... She hauled water from the creek with her friends and learned to pound cassava... She knew the native plants that passed for vegetables... She spoke their language and understood their customs.
Emily was last seen in Namibia, and no amount of law enforcement and money has been able to turn up a trace of the girl. Munroe is reluctant to accept Burbank's offer, but does due to the money and thrill of a new challenge. She is forced to reluctantly partner up with Miles Bradford (similar to how the isolated Salander must team with reporter Mikael Blomqvist), a security expert hired to be Munroe's personal bodyguard during their search. Munroe resists this at first, knowing the ability to blend in can be easily compromised by those without the requisite information.
The dialogue can occasionally come across as somewhat stilted and loaded with exposition (upon hearing Munroe's reluctance, Burbank replies, "But you do have the skill set to survive and blend in with any culture that you come in contact with. Even more, you know how to ask the right questions of the right people to get the answers you need").
After being kidnapped, Munroe makes a daring escape, only to lose Bradford in the process. Here she must go back to the one man she never thought she would, the Edward to her Bella, gun runner and drug kingpin Francisco Beyard.
The settings in The Informationist, in comparison to the majority of crime fiction, are fairly unique. Central Africa -- Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea -- have been far less traveled than the U.S., the UK and the currently hot Eastern Europe (Salander has thankfully kindled interest in many fine writers from that region, including Henning Mankell, Peter Høeg and Yrsa Sigurdardottir).
Like the best characters in crime fiction, Munroe has tunnel vision when it comes to completing her mission. Stevens write in clipped, staccato prose that resembles early Lee Child and accentuates the sense of Munroe's own heightened awareness of her surroundings. The pace rarely lets up as the body count rises, as we are soon let into the darkness that is Munroe's brutal past. Tortured heroes and heroines are nothing new in fiction; the most interesting studies are done when we see how the past affects these characters in the present. With Munroe, we see how past violence has changed her, changed who she is and how she views the world, and like many great detectives she has her own moral code that invites sympathy in the face of atrocity.
Though the Salander comparisons come fast and furious from the publisher and other critics, Munroe comes off as a creation all Stevens's own. The author's own murky background (her bio reads that Stevens "broke free of the cult in order to follow hope and a vague idea of what possibilities lay ahead.") In The Informationist, Stevens has created a character who, possibly like herself, may not always know what dangers lay in front of her or how she'll come out ahead, but it's our pleasure to travel these strange, exciting roads with her.
JASON PINTER is the bestselling author of five thriller novels (the most recent of which are The Fury and The Darkness), as well as the ebook exclusive thriller FAKING LIFE. His first novel for young readers, Zeke Bartholomew: Superspy!, will be released in the summer of 2011. Visit him at www.jasonpinter.com or follow him on Twitter.