I originally reviewed A Simple Plan by Scott Smith on November 7, 2006.
There is a detached almost unemotional tone to the story as told from the point of view of one of the brothers, Hank the one whose job is to hold the money. The somber thoughtfulness and the clinical reporting heighten the internal dynamics of the small group. Old tensions, personality quirks and internal failings all will rise to the surface. Deception and subterfuge quickly becomes the rules by which the game is to be played as a genuine need for the money arises. Friendship and loyalty will be tested as tensions continue to mount. The dread of what is going to happen becomes palpable and weighs heavy on the reader because we know, more so then the characters, that this is going to end badly.
I would imagine that when most people think of a thriller they think of a book that has a blistering pace where the action and suspense quickly escalate to create a level of tension. But A Simple Plan is a slow burner of a novel, the suspense and terror are all there in abundance but its the tension of waiting, you know that the train wreck is going to happen, you just don’t know when.
Now onto my two problems with the book. One is a minor quibble at best and the other is a more noteworthy observation.
I’ll tackle the minor quibble first. The same detached quality that suits the tensions of the internal group dynamic so well gets a bit repetitive when Smith describes the desolate landscape that the story takes place in. If there were only a couple of passages it wouldn’t even bear mentioning. These types of descriptions seem to pop up all over the place though and at some point I just started skimming over them. A Simple Plan reminds one of Fargo; though the stories are different they will always be compared due to their proximity. The reason that I bring up Fargo is because when the Cohen brothers wanted to show how desolate the landscape was they merely had to have a long ground level tracking shot or a wide shot pulled back to show the diminutive stature of those being presented. Notice the way that the characters in the movie blend into the background. Smith doesn’t have the same visual luxury and handles it as best he can. Like I said I skimmed those passages and nothing was lost.
The first 265 pages of the book are absolutely stunning in their execution and are just flat out brilliant. When the book focuses on the internal group dynamics of the five people who know about the money and all of the tensions that the money brings it is a psychologically engrossing morality tale. The explosive climax of the book was shocking and devastating and to add to the masterful handling of it, it lasts for an entire chapter and just keeps on pounding away at you. You knew that things were going to come to a head but you couldn’t ever begin to guess how. When it happens all the tension that has been built has been forcibly blown from your body, at the close of that chapter you feel tired and worn out. The reason why I mention the page number is because the book is 432 pages long. I thought to myself, ‘What’s left for him to explore’.
At this point the focus of the story begins to expand. There is an increasingly larger investigation into the missing plane that eventually involves the FBI. Once the story starts to work on external forces as opposed to internal forces it loses its laser like focus and starts to become a lopsided tale that eventually loses its credibility. There were many points where I found myself thinking that Smith still had a wealth of material that he left unexplored in the initial group. The most glaring example is Hanks marriage. Continually Hank is open and honest about his actions and thoughts with his wife, and she is always supportive and pragmatic about what to do next. Apparently they have no cracks in their marriage for the money, and all that it means, to be explored or even exploited. A very quick bedroom conversation hints at possible future betrayals and they just never happen. To have explored this to its dark heart would have rendered A Simple Plan a masterpiece.
The ending is appropriately grim and fatalistic. It just fades out instead of ending with unexpected suddenness. I was prepared for a dark ambivalent ending and to a certain degree got it, but it did ultimately feel like a bit of a cop out.