I bought The Informationist at Darvil’s Bookstore in Eastsound, Washington, on Orcas Island. It’s interesting that the city of Salinas, California, with a population of 150,000, can’t support a bookstore, but the island, whose year-round population is probably about 5,000, does. That may say something about people who live on Orcas, or maybe it’s more about the tenacity of the owners of Darvil’s.
The Informationist, by Taylor Stevens, introduces the latest in the cadre of damaged, kickass and just-plain-badass heroines that started with Carol O’Connell’s Kathy Mallory and exploded into full bloom with Stieg Larsson’s Lizbeth Salander. Stevens borrows freely from the adventure/thriller tradition and the romance novel tradition but mixes it up in a way that leads to a bracing adventure in an exotic, exciting location.
Vanessa Michael Munroe is a master of languages and has the ability to immerse herself in a culture quickly, gleaning facts and context that even government security branches can’t retrieve. She is gray-eyed and super-model slender; she can make herself glamorous and seductive, or pull on a pair of men’s boots, strap up her chest, clip her hair and pass for a slim young man.
Michael, as she prefers, usually works for governments or corporations, but her handler approaches her with a different assignment. A Houston oil billionaire wants someone to make one last search for his stepdaughter, who disappeared in Africa four years ago. He will pay Munroe a hundred thousand dollars just to come listen to his argument.
Munroe was born in Africa, to American missionaries, with a father somewhat like the father in Barbara Kingsolver’s book The Poisonwood Bible. At fourteen, she rebelled and took up with a crew of smugglers. After things went bad, she fled to America, but the African continent is haunted with bloody memories for her, and she is not sure she wants to go back. Something in the billionaire’s story intrigues her, though, and the money is very good, so she agrees.
The search takes Munroe and the reader to Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, and it is here, describing the jungle, the ocean, the tribal capitals flooded with oil-money, that Stevens’s writing pays off. The enervating humidity, the buzz of insects, the taste of Coke, the sting of jungle insects, are all almost palpable. Munroe’s backstory and her description of the demons that haunt her intrigued me, often more than the story’s present-tense machinations.
There were a few too many romance-novel conventions for me at times, especially in the backstory of Munroe and Francisco Beyar, a gun-runner she knew in her youth and hooks up with again in this operation. The language is not gooey, and the sexual connection between these two characters sparkles like an arc of electricity, but their motivations are romance-novel motivations, and that’s too bad. Similarly, Munroe’s acceptance of the billionaire’s story, which is as full of holes as a fishnet (the girl’s been gone for four years—why a new search now?) does not live up to Munroe’s reputation for data-gathering. These stumbles in the plot caught my attention at the time, but the setting and the playing-out of Monroe’s character kept me reading. I did roll my eyes though, at that too-clever technique Monroe uses not once but twice to get out of handcuffs.
When things go wrong in the operation, there is a stunning scene where we see exactly what Munroe is capable of, and why she calls the voices in her head “demons.” It’s vivid, breathtaking and heartbreaking.
Do I believe that a slender woman who has, by her own count, forty-two knife and bullet scars on her body is so alluring that she can seduce any man she chooses? Not really. Do I believe that her character, as written, would even forgive Francisco for what he allowed to be done to her? Not really. But I tend to disbelieve those things after the fact, and while I was reading, they may have dinged my enjoyment of the book slightly but they didn’t derail it.
The ending did bug me, though. Stevens wants to have it both ways; rough but deserved justice for the bad guys, but moral redemption for Munroe. This leads to a dramatically insincere climax.
It will be interesting to see if Stevens makes the necessary course corrections and maintains her momentum, or if she slides into predictability. I’m hoping for the former.