Seven Down, by David Whitton

Helmuth von Moltke said way back in 1871 that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. (In a nutshell.) But we learn in David Whitton’s fascinating novel, Seven Down, that the people putting together the plan should maybe also take a closer look at the folks they’ve engaged to carry out the plan. No matter how well designed the plan, no matter how perfectly timed each piece, no matter how carefully placed the players, someone is going to screw things up.

The prologue to Seven Down sets things up for us. A mysterious company set up an elaborate plan to kill a man at a fancy hotel in London, Ontario. More than two years later, an agent of that company has finally compiled his report about what went wrong. This report contains transcripts of interviews and interrogations with a series of sleeper agents who were placed at the King William to take out the company’s target. And it’s apparent from the first of these that the sleeper agents are…not the best choices for the job. Reading the transcripts of conversations (and the interrogation) revealed people who are worried about a missed period, are on a lot of cocaine, are bleeding out from a gunshot, are clinically paranoid, and so on. There are so many human flaws that I started to try and match the characters to the seven deadly sins. (I almost got seven matches.)

This book is a stunning piece of writing. Structurally, it’s brilliant. The way that the beginning and the end of Seven Down echo each other is so amazing that I desperately want someone else to read this book so that I gush over Whitton’s writing with them. But the characters! The characters! Each character has such a distinct voice that I stopped trying to figure out what was supposed to happen on that messy, violent day at the hotel and focused completely on how the conversations let me into the characters’ heads so deeply that I felt like a fly in the wall of a therapist’s office. I could see how all of their busy thoughts made the company’s plan go to hell before it even happened. Honestly, it’s a wonder anyone at that company even has a job anymore.

It’s kind of funny that I read this book so closely on the heels of John Connolly’s The Nameless Ones. The two books have me thinking about thrillers. Plans don’t always work, either because of someone getting outsmarted or secrets are revealed or because of general chaos. Human flaws play a part, but never in the ways that I saw in Seven Down. None of the characters were the usual ethically tortured, world-weary figure that I usually see in thrillers. The characters in Seven Down are ordinary people, who thought they were signing up for something important when they chose to be sleeper agents only to realize that, when it came down to it, they were not the right people for the job.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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