The Evolution of Fear is a throat-grabbing read which combines genuine pathos and the exploration of serious themes with an international thriller plot. With action aplenty, and high stakes, there is no evidence of second album syndrome here. If anything, The Evolution of Fear is better than The Abrupt Physics of Dying, which was one of my best reads of 2015 (reviewed here). With his űber-authentic and unique brand of EcoNoir, Hardisty brought something new to the thriller market last year, and I wasn’t surprised when the novel was nominated for the CWA John Creasy Debut Dagger.
The Evolution of Fear is the second in the trilogy with protagonist Claymore Straker. It isn’t a spoiler to say Clay survives the first book as it says so in the blurb for this one. The story moves from Yemen, and begins in Cornwall in 1994 where Clay (and his aliases) have been hiding out for several weeks from the Russian mafia. With a price on his head, he’s separated from the woman he loves (Rania). But there wouldn’t be much of a story if he remained safely in his cottage-by-the-sea, would there? You get the feeling that Clay’s simply biding his time until he decides what to do, rather than gone to live in the Costa del Cornwall forever. He knows he’s scared and scarred, and needs to confront those aspects of himself. And on the first page, Hardisty plunges the reader (and Clay) into the jeopardy and conflict of the plot. The Cornish holiday is over because someone knows where Clay is. Within seconds he realises his coastal comfort zone was a mirage, and the armed assassins pose a mortal threat to him – and Rania. But who has betrayed Clay and will he manage to keep himself safe? And is he up to the challenges ahead?
The plot burns through petrol, with multiple twists and turns, some signposted, some completely unexpected. There is a lot of gun-fighting and killing, but both are in keeping with the high stakes, and this isn’t Miss Marple: no-one has stolen the prize winning marrows at the village fête. It’s mafia/CIA/corporation/international terrorism/species extinction scale crime. The price on Clay’s head – dead or alive – has been placed by the leader of the Medved family for the murder of one of their kin, a crime Clay didn’t commit. This takes the story, and Clay, to Cyprus. Rania, who is a journalist, is also sent there by her boss to follow a story about the threat posed to turtles by tourism and development. Having been to Cyprus and seen evidence of the national and religious conflicts, I found this aspect of the book extremely interesting, particularly since it brings in environmental issues and capitalism.
The parts of the plot which involve Rania provide just some of the novel’s pathos. Clay’s love for her is genuine, and this shows us aspects of his character which don’t come across when he’s blasting bullets into people. Even when Rania isn’t present, the way Clay thinks about her gives his character – and hers – depth. We see that Clay has huge integrity, and loyalty is a guiding principle for him. And we also see the demons he struggles with: self-doubt, self-blame and fear. I really liked the scenes which dealt with the turtle colonies and the scientist’s work in Cyprus. These more tender moments provide a balance to the violence, and time to think.
With a book which covers some hard-hitting themes, and which uses a fair bit of technical language about guns, boats and equipment, it takes great skill to keep the plot moving. Hardisty is extremely good at this, and for some reason I’ve not figured out yet the technical details seem important to him. They aren’t boy’s toys. It is almost as though the details are there to show us how essential all the gadgets and technology are in overcoming the enemy but how unimportant and destructive in terms of the bigger picture. Perhaps, then, we are all fighting the wrong enemy and, like Frankenstein’s monster, we’ve created it? The descriptive prose is beautifully written. Hardisty interweaves these sentences with action and dialogue, and anchors them within character goals and obstacles. This creates a feeling of balance, and means the pace doesn’t suffer. In fact, I found the pace of this book a little faster and more consistent than the APoD.
When it comes to plot and character conflict, Hardisty brings in some of his key themes. On his ‘travels’ Clay faces extraordinary battles with the elements, including fire and water. These very much root the novel in nature and science … but also mythology. Fire and water are natural and difficult to control. They have the power to give and take away life. These larger elemental threats mirror many of the inner struggles Clay faces, chiefly, as the title suggests – fear. In addition, Clay is haunted by things he’s witnessed and been involved with in the past, and has to find a way to reconcile himself to them so he can be truly happy. Redemption, then, transcendence, forgiveness and betrayal all feature. As do corruption and consequences. These are some of my favourite themes, all highly psychological. And you can’t get more universal than fear, betrayal and greed. This book is a contemporary thriller. However, it also has a timeless feel to it. This part is depressing: when-oh-when are we going to understand the effects our acquisitive and lazy actions have on flora, fauna and climate?
Fear is such an interesting theme to consider because, along with anger, it is arguably one of the two core emotions in psychology. As such, and as the novel explores, fear has the potential to control our lives and happiness. Don’t industries, via marketing and advertising, exploit and manipulate our fears to make us buy their products? I find it fascinating that industries, corporations, nations, leaders, can all make us feel we have to do certain things or bad things will happen. Clay’s fears are survival-oriented and about whether he can be the man he wants. In psychology, emotions aren’t seen as negative or positive. Fear is seen as a natural response to perceived threat, evolved, originally, to keep us alive: it drives fight, flight and freeze behaviours. In The Evolution of Fear Hardisty uses ideas from natural selection to examine the world, and to show the consequences of trying to speed up nature’s clock. If turtles are chased from their breeding grounds, they will not be able to evolve sufficiently quickly and will become extinct. What about Clay? Have his fears evolved or has he learnt them? And more importantly, will he be able to transcend them in the ways he wants? According to behaviourism, fears are learnt, either by being rewarded (think: Skinner’s pigeons) or by association (think: Pavlov’s dogs). Given, then, phobias are irrational, they cannot also be adaptive. If we are scared of failure, of not being good enough, are these any more rational than being scared of spiders?
Amongst the advice for writers is ‘write what you know’. Then there’s ‘write what you want to read’. The one I like says, write what you feel passionately about, what makes you curious, what keeps you awake at night. I cannot claim to know Hardisty’s motivations for writing but, having listened to him speak at CrimeFest 2015, and read both his novels, it strikes me he writes about things he cares deeply about. The environmental issues which featured in APoD (chiefly oil company pollution causing birth defects and disease) re-appear in the Evolution of Fear in a different form: turtle populations under threat from tourism in Cyprus. It is a masterclass in how to use fiction to explore some of the key threats to our environment and the modern world.
To conclude, I would highly recommend The Evolution of Fear to anyone who enjoys a beautifully written, intelligent, fast-paced thriller.
Right. What happens in book three?
Vicky Newham © May 2016