With M Night Shymalayan’s television adaptation of Blake Crouch’s Pines trilogy of books just around the corner, I thought I’d take a gander at one of the books that’s been languishing on my device for an awful long time.
If you’re a genre purist, then this is probably not the book, TV series, for you. It starts off as a straightforward thriller – a Secret Service agent wakes up, disorientated on the verge of a road outside a picturesque Idaho town (ah, what would thriller writers do without amnesia?) – and then becomes increasingly barmy.
The blurb has just arrived in town and is looking to meet new people:
Secret service agent Ethan Burke arrives in Wayward Pines, Idaho, with a clear mission: locate and recover two federal agents who went missing in the bucolic town one month earlier. But within minutes of his arrival, Ethan is involved in a violent accident. He comes to in a hospital, with no ID, no cell phone, and no briefcase.
The medical staff seems friendly enough, but something feels…off. As the days pass, Ethan’s investigation into the disappearance of his colleagues turns up more questions than answers. Why can’t he get any phone calls through to his wife and son in the outside world? Why doesn’t anyone believe he is who he says he is? And what is the purpose of the electrified fences surrounding the town?
Are they meant to keep the residents in? Or something else out? Each step closer to the truth takes Ethan further from the world he thought he knew, from the man he thought he was, until he must face a horrifying fact—he may never get out of Wayward Pines alive.
Pines is a mash-up of movie and TV references. There are strands of The Prisoner and Lost and Twin Peaks in its DNA – Crouch said he always wanted to write his own version of Lynch’s iconic drama with its sinister picket-fence imagery – and Stepford and Buck Rogers and The Truman Show, and even Shymalayan’s own movie The Village. It’s a thriller, a frontier western and, ultimately, a science-fiction opus.
It’s all a bit daft, but hugely readable, because Pines is fast and frenetic and never lets up. Crouch quickly takes Ethan on the run. Trouble is, he’s unable to get out of town, thanks to all the electric fences and roads that bend in on themselves and two impenetrable cliff faces that loom over Pines.
At one point, he’s literally hunted by every citizen in the town – all the men, all the old ladies and the children, who want to smash his head in – so, wait, there’s a bit of The Wicker Man in there, too. One of the joys of the book is the fact that Ethan is a tenacious but vulnerable leading man, and gets the shit kicked out of him on a pretty regular basis.
Crouch powers the intriguing narrative by dangling questions on a stick. On every page, questions, questions, questions, dangle, dangle, dangle. If there’s one thing that keep us turning pages in any thriller, it’s wanting to know the answer to the damned questions. What happened to Ethan’s secret service colleagues? Why is the sound of locusts pumped into the town by a sound system? Because those questions have more layers than Mary Berry’s battenburg, you keep reading. Crouch knows to leave the final reveal for as long as he can. For any would-be genre writer Pines is a terrific example on how to play kicky-up with the mystery of your central concept.
At the end you have to take a very deep breath – I suggest you practice a few yoga relaxation techniques – to swallow Crouch’s hugely audacious answer to all these myriad questions. I mean, it helps if you love all those series and movies I’ve mentioned. Wait! Westworld – that’s another one, with its hidden subterranean corridors and fluorescents.
But if you’re the kind of person who loves elaborate sci-fi conspiracies then you’ll be more than happy. The subsequent books are more contemplative and delve deeper into the weird town of Pines, a small slice of Americana that is both dystopia and nirvana.
Pines is High Concept with a vengeance. If ever there was an idea stripped down to its jockeys ready for television to come batting its eyelids, it’s this one.
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