Andrew Gross — an at-times collaborator with James Patterson — is known for churning out pulp fiction for the fast-moving ‘hits’ shelves. He writes all-American thrillers (going to the extent of thoughtfully differentiating amongst cultures and mindsets that prevail across the expanse that is the United States), set in small-town locales, drawing a lot from US law-keeping sources (the 911 hotline, FBI and even the police outreach branch).
15 seconds starts off as a fast-and-furious narrative — part first-person, part reported — with a very compelling lead-in (the prologue) to the first chapter. About 50 per cent of the book is riveting, but somewhere in the middle, the all-Americanisms — mostly in the form of contrived family/
social values — steal the thunder from the pulsating pace. What starts out as a cat-and-mouse game now degenerates into “doing the right thing”; it’s a tone that somehow puts a brake on the thrills.
So we have an amicably-divorced (read: he’s still friends with the ex) successful doctor, Henry Steadman, who is, inexplicably, framed for a series of unconnected murders. Just as you have started to rub your hands in glee because you assume
this will turn out to be a ‘white knuckle, stay-up-all-night thrill ride’, comes the downer: Gross reveals the identity of the unhinged killer, and the trail he (the killer) embarks on forms one part of the non-first-person narrative.
Dr Steadman (talking to us directly from his first-person standpoint) becomes a quarry, and goes on the run in order to gather evidence to prove his innocence, while trying to keep minimal contact with his estranged wife, his teenage daughter and a few of his colleagues.
Soon, he finds out that his daughter has been taken hostage by the killer who’s stage-managing the set-up, and it now becomes a matter of performing a “fatherly duty” — which is alright really, except that you already know by now what the outcome is likely to be (remember, in all-Americanisms, happily-ever-after usually forms the epilogue?).
The good doctor’s lifeline is Carrie Holmes, who has always dreamed of being a detective but had to suffice playing the role by proxy. Carrie’s just suffered a personal tragedy — her husband passed away — but, again, you cannot help but wonder if this is leading up to the aisle of the match-making altar more than nabbing a serial murderer (two newly single, attractive adults on a common mission — where does that generally end?).
In the end, 15 Seconds overstays its welcome by much more than 15 (short) chapters. The denouement is the sort of thing you’ve come to expect from B-grade Hollywood thrill-fests (given that it’s so American in ethos, Bollywood would probably not make the cut): the bad guy leading all starring actors to a dingy outpost (from where your screams would not be heard by the rest of civilisation), and laying on his meanness and psycho-babble very thick. A few wrong moves (like, a gun that’s run out of ammunition or a mechanical saw whose button suddenly gets pushed by mistake) by the good guys, just so you can move a little closer to the edge of your seat, before the seamless sense of déjà vu comes shining through like a bright light.
Gross is a good writer and there is ample evidence of a tautness, an edginess in his style — the most important hallmarks of a thriller writer. His characterisations, though identifiable, are inconsistent, and tend to jar either because they too sugary sweet or too maniacally far-fetched.
But there are enough thrills in 15 Seconds for it to sail through as a one-sitting, easy read in the middle of the night. You’ll go to sleep secure in the knowledge that, when the morning comes, the world will be a better place.