The Tinderbox by Jo Bannister, with a digression on the subject of Thrillers with Brains

July 28, 2007 at 10:34 pm (books, Mystery fiction)

jo-bannister.jpg tinderbox.jpg Jo Bannister, born in Lancashire and currently residing in Northern Ireland, is not nearly as well known in the U.S. as she should be. This assertion on my part is based on The Tinderbox. Here is a novel that fits handily into that narrow little space reserved on my mental bookshelves for thrillers with brains. How would I characterize such works? They have major forward momentum as regards the plot; still, the characters are three-dimensional and, if not always likable, at least intriguing. I like to feel invested in a character, to want to know more about this person, or at the very least, to know what his or her ultimate fate will be. Boy, was this ever the case with The Tinderbox. Lawrence Schofield of Birmingham has never stopped mourning his daughter Cassie, missing for the last seven years. He has almost given up searching for her when he thinks he sees her in a film about homeless men, women, and children who live in barren stretches of London beneath highway overpasses. Like a knight on a quest, he sets out to find the daughter that he has never stopped loving.

Bannister creates a haunting alternate reality, as Schofield sojourns among the tribes of the homeless. At first, he feels like a stranger in a strange land; gradually he comes to sympathize, and even empathize, with the lost souls who live “off the grid,” struggle to survive, and have only one another to depend on and turn to in a crisis. Still, he is repelled by the idea of his daughter living among them. What happens as he penetrates deeper and deeper this strange half-light world makes for a terrific story, terrifically well told by Jo Bannister.

Which brings me to another indispensable quality of thrillers with brains: superior writing. I’m referring to both dialogue and description. Well, heck: I demand that kind of excellence in everything I read – why would I require less from genre writers? One of the reasons I love crime fiction, both classic and current, is that so much of it is incredibly well written.

Here is Bannister describing the gathering of one of the tribes around a campfire:

“It wasn’t so much a party as an amiable ritual for ending the day among people with no belief in prayer. They stoked the fire and came together, not at a certain hour but when they were tired and ready to rest, and basked in the warmth of companionship, and talked or sang or just let the harshness of their existence run out of their bones.”

zebra.jpg This scene has a primordial ambiance and reminded me of one of my favorite passages from The Zebra-Striped Hearse by the great Ross MacDonald:

“The striped hearse was standing empty among some other cars off the highway above Zuma. I parked behind it and went down to the beach to search for its owner. Bonfires were scattered along the shore, like the bivouacs of nomad tribes or nuclear war survivors. The tide was high and the breakers loomed up marbled black and fell white out of oceanic darkness.”

Other thrillers with brains? The following spring to mind:

restless.jpg warlord.jpg Restless by William Boyd, The Small Boat of Great Sorrows and The Warlord’s Son by Dan Fesperman, and, of course, just about anything by John LeCarre. lecarre.jpg

james_lasdun.jpg lasdun_james_horned_man.jpg James Lasdun is a writer in this genre who really fascinates me. The Horned Man in particular has a hallucinatory quality about it that I found unique and irresistible. The writing in both this book and in Seven Lies is terrific. But caveat emptor: just about everyone to whom I’ve given The Horned Man has not cared for it. This doesn’t happen to me very often where recommendations are concerned. So…if you are nevertheless of a mind to give it a try, Dear Reader, let me know how you fare.



  1. Intrigue in Italy: The Savage Garden by Mark Mills « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Boyd and The Warlord’s Son by Dan Fesperman, in one of my favorite fiction categories, Thrillers with Brains. And if you want more crime fiction with an Italian setting, try Donna Leon, Magdalen Nabb, or […]

  2. “I now walk into the wild”: the infuriating, mystifying, ultimately harrowing story of Chris McCandless « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] am reminded of the novel The Tinderbox, in which a family man whose daughter is a runaway never stops loving her and hoping to find her; […]

  3. The Tinderbox by Jo Bannister: a book discussion… « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] because it had been so long since I read it. I knew only that I had enjoyed it very much, as my blog post […]

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