The Red Lotus: A Novel

  • By Chris Bohjalian
  • Doubleday
  • 400 pp.
  • Reviewed by Terry Zobeck
  • March 23, 2020

This fresh take on American/Vietnamese relations boasts strong supporting characters but falls short as a literary thriller.

Chris Bohjalian’s publisher may be feeling a tad snake-bit right about now. They’re launching his 22nd book amid a national public-health emergency. In addition to the challenges authors face trying to get readers to buy their books and attend signings, the plot of Bohjalian’s new novel centers around a potential pandemic.

Probably not what most people want to read for entertainment these days.

The blurbs on the back of The Red Lotus proclaim it to be a “breathless thriller” and a “steadily hair-raising thriller.” The front cover advertises it as “a novel.” Let’s split the difference and call it a literary thriller, an oxymoronic hybrid that wouldn’t seem to satisfy readers of either parent genre.

Literary novels tend to focus on character development over plot and eschew melodrama in favor of stories that unfold as quietly and slowly as drying paint. Thrillers are plot-driven, full of fast-paced action, and populated with characters as deeply drawn as carnival artists’ caricatures.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t begrudge genre authors attempting to elevate their work to the level of literature; many have succeeded. Dashiell Hammett was quite clear that was his goal with The Maltese Falcon. Raymond Chandler certainly succeeded with The Long Goodbye. John Le Carré consistently produces espionage novels of great literary merit. And Patrick O’Brian most definitely raised the lowly regarded historical novel to fine literature with his Jack Aubrey and Steven Maturin tales.

But literary thrillers? The Red Lotus proves that the two forms shouldn’t interbreed. The central plot element — a criminal conspiracy to weaponize a bacterium and sell it to a rogue nation — is a serviceable foundation for a thriller. But the story unfolds at such a slow place, with so little excitement and a protagonist so unengaging, that the reader may well lose interest by page 100.

Alexis Remnick is a dedicated New York City emergency-room doctor with a troubled past, including a history of “cutting” brought on by the early death of her father and by her emotionally distant mother. As the story begins, Alexis is on a biking vacation in Vietnam with her new boyfriend, Austin Harper. He suggested the trip so that he could visit the area where his father and uncle served during the war. His father was wounded but survived; his uncle did not.

Austin takes a solo bike trip to make his pilgrimage to the sites of the long-ago attacks. When he doesn’t return to their hotel, Alexis contacts the police and the American consulate. The subsequent investigation turns up little evidence of Austin’s whereabouts. However, it does reveal that his family history is a web of lies.

Alexis returns home with far more questions than answers. What has become of Austin?

Why did he lie about his father’s and uncle’s wartime experiences? What was the real reason for his trip to Vietnam?

It’s difficult to care much about Austin’s fate and Alexis’ search for answers because the most interesting characters in the book are supporting players: Captain Quang Nguyen, with the Vietnam mobile police force; Toril Bjornstad, the FBI attaché for Vietnam; and, most especially, Ken Sarafian, a retired NYPD detective and current private investigator.

These three characters conduct most of the investigation that unravels the riddle of Austin Harper. It is only in the book’s final section that Alexis does anything of interest with much excitement. More of Quang, Toril, and Ken would have greatly improved the story.

Bohjalian’s literary touches include 10 pages of backstory on Alexis and her mother. Two paragraphs of each would have sufficed. Austin’s parents and Alexis’ horribly awkward interactions with them get far too much attention without moving the plot along.

The reader also is treated to a description of a puppy’s eyes on the other side of the window at the café where Alexis is eating. Why? There are many more such diversions that do nothing to flesh out character or advance the story.

If the reader sticks with the book until the end, there is a satisfying resolution, but then the author tacks on an epilogue that completely ruins any goodwill he may have generated with the preceding story. His editor should have applied the same principle to this epilogue that the great Elmore Leonard applied to prologues: Don’t write them.

Terry Zobeck is a substance-abuse researcher and policy and budget analyst with the federal government. He also is the author of the forthcoming A Trawl Among the Shelves: Lawrence Block Bibliography, 1958-2020. In his off hours, he is an avid book and music collector.

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