by Duane Swierczynski
Review by Ernest Lilley
St. Martin's Minotaur Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0312343795
Date: 14 November, 2006 List Price $23.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
When Jack met Kelly, he was sitting in a airport bar doing some girl watching, drinking, and brooding about the divorce that his wife wanted. Kelly was spiking his drink with poison. There might be better way's to strike up an acquaintance, but Kelly doesn't have the luxury of time, and once you've poisoned a guy and offered him the antidote, you can be pretty certain you'll be able to keep his attention. She needs more than just his attention though. What she needs is company. In fact, she's dying for it.
Kelly, it turns out, is a secret weapons lab tech on the run, and her veins are full of experimental weaponized nanotech. Tiny little machines that live off her blood supply, replicating like a virus and waiting for something to trigger their programming. They told Kelly she was working on technology for locating kidnap victims by putting a nanomachine version of lowjack in the blood systems of likely victims. What they didn't tell her was that the little mechanobugs had a poison pill setting that could be triggered as well. When activated, the bugs sense the presence of anyone within ten feet. If there's nobody there for more than ten seconds, they kill you.
This could actually be handy for controlling prisoners, I suppose, but it's hard to imagine any real world use for it. Except maybe terrorism.
Well, Kelly is plenty terrorized, but she's not the sort to roll over and die without a fight. So after escaping from the lab she'd worked at, while her co-workers were all getting killed by a sanitizing squad, she's spent the last two weeks hanging out in airports picking up married men, keeping close to them for however long she could make it work...then letting them go with the kiss of death on their lips. Kelly is very, very, infectious. Cute too. She's neither a natural blonde nor natural born killer, but knocking off adulterous guys doesn't bother her much, and she figures it's got to piss off the guy who she escaped at the weapons lab.
Jack is more than just the next victim to her, and in fact she tries pretty hard not to get him infected. Since he's a reporter, she's hoping that she can use him to expose the existence of the nanotech, so that if she has to die a horrible blood oozing death, at least it won't be in vain. Unfortunately for her, and more so for Jack, he's the skeptical sort. He won't believe she's actually poisoned him until he starts power vomiting out of the back of a cab, and he won't believe the bit about the nanobots until he's made the mistake of kissing her. Kind of puts a whole new spin on "till death do us part."
The evil mastermind behind the weapons lab tech, known as the "Operator" wants her back, as well as the head of anyone she's managed to kill off. Evidently the little bugs like brains. Working through a secret government agency that may, or may not, have ties to Homeland Security, he puts Kowalski on her trail and tell him to bring her back alive, along with an assortment of heads. Kowalski is about the best of the best at this stuff, and he quietly leaves a trail of corpses of his own in the pursuit of "no witness left behind". His hobbies include stalking and killing Mafia members in Philadelphia, something he got interested in when his pregnant girlfriend was killed for being related to the wrong son of Italy. He'd really like to clean all this up and get back to his vendetta, and when that's done move somewhere warm and eat seafood. Or maybe a bullet. Whatever.
But for now he's being led on a merry chase across, under and over the City of Brotherly Love, flashing his Homeland Security badge and trying to figure out what the hell this is all about, anyway. Just when he thinks he's got a handle on the mission, he gets pulled off it. That's never happened before and it hurts his pride (Note to self: Never hurt the pride of a a trained killer). Now the hunt gets personal.
There's a lot of zany mania in this story, and watching the assorted characters run around Philly all night is fun in a frenetic sort of way. If you've seen the 1950 movie D.O.A., starring Edmond O'Brien you'll be familiar with the countdown to death and even the type of poison that Jack is dying from. Though there's less humor, this story reminds me a bit of Into the Night (1985) with Jeff Goldblum and Michelle Pfeiffer, another mad chase in the darkness where strangers become allies.
While I enjoyed the action and edginess of the characters, I had real trouble with the secret nanotech plot device. Unfortunately I know something about nanotech, or think I do, and I have a real problem imagining what the author has conjured up. Worse, about three quarters of the way through the story, he seems to change the rules on us. Either that or I wasn't paying close enough attention. But it's only a plot element, and I made myself just let it go. It's magic science, and hey...never bet against what secret weapons labs are capable of. You'd be surprised, generally unpleasantly.
The other thing that threw me a bit was the tangled triangle between Kissing Kelly, Dying Jack, and Killer Kowalski. Unlike the character in D.O.A., Jack never becomes all that likable. It seems to me that the author should have either made him a love interest or killed him off early, because all he really accomplishes is to take the story sideways periodically. The real action takes place between the blonde and Kowalski, and their individual back stories offer plenty to make them interesting. The "blonde" bit is a bit gratuitous as well, unfortunately, because it seems like the title should do more than titillate the reader. There is a nice collection of quotes about blondes, no jokes, thank you, leading off the chapters.
The bottom line was that I had fun with The Blonde. Once I picked it up I pretty much didn't put it down till the end, but it never quite convince me that the action made sense. The author (if you think I'm going to type "Swierczynski" you're crazy) has great prose, and killer characters but I think he's reaching for a plot to hang them on.