“City Of Windows” is the first book of a series of thrillers centred around Lucas Page, a former FBI man turned Maths Professor who has an extraordinary (verging on the ‘yeah, right – I so believe that.) ability to visual objects moving through three-dimensional spaces – just what you need if you’re out to catch a sniper.
I picked up “City Of Windows” after reading Escape From The ER’s review of the next book in the series. ‘Under Pressure’. I was in the mood for a thriller with a difference and a strong main character that wasn’t a Jack Bauer clone, and I got one, although, at first, I wasn’t sure what I’d bought. Here’s my initial reaction.
I’m four chapters in and we’ve spent that time seeing the killing (FBI agent driving through Manhattan shot by a sniper), meeting our hero (science professor with prosthetic limbs and a substantial foster family) and hearing FBI SAIC (yep, you need to know this stuff- keep up) making his recruitment pitch.
The whole thing has all the subtlety of a Heavy Metal arena anthem The moves are as familiar as the steps to Mud’s ‘Tiger Feet’ and at least as old. The narrator amplifies this by sounding like he’s always on the edge of a Joe Friday impersonation.
I should be saying: ‘The prose is too self-consciously muscular, the emotions are all loud and confined to three chords – I’m outta here.’
But I’m not.
Because a GOOD heavy metal anthem always has something new. It may be the familiar beats and chords that get your feet moving but its the small touches of originality that keep you listening.
There are two touches here that worked for me and have me heading happily to Chapter Five.
Firstly, our hero has just brought a Christmas tree home, despite being distracted by the news footage of the crime and he is in the middle of performing the alphabet song for the younger kids when the FBI arrive. I liked that. Not so alpha male. More just human.
Secondly, and this is the kicker, his response to the FBI SAIC’s recruitment pitch was to paraphrase Rick Deckard’s response to Bryant at the start of ‘BladeRunner’ – ‘I was quit when you came in and I’m twice as quit now.’ How can I resist a hero who quotes ‘Bladerunner’?
So, I’m going to relax into this and let it carry me along the familiar routes and keep an ear open for all the things that make a difference.
I soon realised that I’d been unfair to both the author and the narrator. Pobi managed to deliver a character study of Lucas Page, complete with flashbacks to his childhood, as well delivering a rollercoaster thriller with multiple peaks that we’re carefully led up to and then dropped from at alarming speed. Stephen Graybill, the narrator, showed more nuance as he went along and I’m hoping he’ll be kept as the narrator for future books.
‘City Of Windows’ is a real page-turner with plots that curl in on one another in ways that make sense looking back but which you can’t see coming. The action scenes are clearly visualised, the violence is graphic and the tension is wound so tight it hurts, especially when Pobi cuts from one set of characters to another in the middle of scenes of extreme threat.
I liked the fact that Page’s family felt so real, that his wife was strong and that the kids, including the adopted and fostered ones, were cherished. It made Page more human.
Lucas Page is about as far away from Jack Bauer as it’s possible to get while still being a man you really, really don’t want to threaten. He has only one eye and uses a prosthetic arm and leg but that barely slows him down. He’s allergic to stupid and incapable of tact or even polite small talk. He’s obsessed with numbers. He puts his wife and his kids ahead of his job and he has no real desire to work for the FBI anymore.
I found that, apart from his almost supernatural ability to visualise numbers, I believed in him. He’s a hard guy to like. He has no manners. He’s aggressive. He rants. He has almost no need for people beyond the doors of his own household. He’s also honest and rational and relentless.
‘City of Windows’ is filled with great one-liners from Lucas Page like this thought from our almost always irritable hero, who has had a VERY bad night:
´He resented feeling that the life he had ordered was out of stock.´
This is followed, a little later, with Page reflecting on how absurd it is to believe that everyone carrying a gun would make everyone safer and coining the phrase:
‘America. Land of the free. Home of the afraid.’
Pobi is also an author who hides easter eggs in the text. The FBI has had orders from on high, telling them that the shooter they’re looking for is a French national called Froissante. It’s clear that ‘on high’ has it wrong but Froissante isn’t a common French surname so I looked it up and found that ‘une remarque froissante‘ translates to ‘an upsetting remark’. That kind of thing, especially as a throw-away, makes me smile.
Pobi certainly succeeded in giving me a hero who wasn’t Jack Bauer. Bauer came to American screens less than two months after 9/11. He became emblematic of Bush’s ‘Mission Accomplished’ mindset. ‘City Of Windows’ was published in August 2019, more than two years into Trump’s presidency and different times need a different hero. Lucas Page is a numbers guy. He uses them to assess and respond to risk. He believes in expertise, especially his own and he has no ability to live with stupid just because it’s what everyone feels.
Page is a professor so it’s not surprising that he has a tendency to go on a bit. He also disdains Graves, a former colleague from his time in the FBI. Pobi uses these two things to treat us to an extended, numbers-based ass-kicking that I enjoyed and would have liked to have given myself. It starts with Page saying:
‘”Most Americans go nuts when you mention ISIS, even if they’re not a threat in any statistical way.”
Graves rolled his eyes at that. “Not a threat. You wanna talks about that.”
“Not really, but I will. It wasn’t hard to see through the statistics. Since 9/11 fewer than 200 US citizens have been killed on US soil by what can credibly be called Islamic Extremists, fewer than two hundred,” Lucas said, very slowly. “Your basic Muslim Extremist is not any real threat and I’m not saying that can’t change in an instant, but as things stand, they pose less of a statistical problem than being eaten by your own house-cat. The real threat is your Christian neighbour, Those yahoos kill what, twelve to fiftteen thousand Americans a year? The Iron Man of the Mass Shooting Championship is your average American asshole.”
He turned to Whittaker and asked, “How many mass shootings this week alone?”
Whittaker’s eyes cycled up as she said, ” Six in the last five days.”
Lucas turned back to Graves. “We can chalk half of those up to the silly season but this country has more mass shooters who are American-made than lottery winners. How’s that?”
But he doesn’t stop there. After denying any political agenda a claiming to be just a person who understands numbers, he says:
“Check out the stats on virtually every mass shooting in the fucking history of this country and you won’t find a Radical Muslim behind it. You’ll find a Good Old Boy or mental case, raised on the belief that guns are a God-given right under the umbrella of the the constitution, granted by Jesus.”
He goes on (yes, he does that a lot, except when he’s being shot at or people around him are being threatened. Then he shuts up and fights) to describe the gun-carrying public’s ability to dismiss mass shootings by white guys. He says:
‘Apparently, believing that a Secret World Order carries out atrocious crimes in order to garner public sympathy in an effort to take their guns away is more believable than the truth, which is that having so many guns out there is a cultural mistake, I’ve said it before, there’s a crisis of stupidity in America,. All you have to do is look at the numbers around the world.’
When Graves retorts that that’s not how people feel and that it’s still a free country, Page delivers that final shot in his argument and I wanted to cheer. He says:
‘This isn’t about feelings. This is about facts And although everyone is allowed to have a position, not all positions are created equal. There are experts in any given field. One person’s ignorance is not just as valuable as another’s knowledge and the fact is your average American has to worry about his neighbour more than terrorist by orders of magnitude.’
Most of the book is a high-pressure I-have-to-read-the-next-page-NOW kind of thriller but for me, Page’s rants added something special.
I’m a facts person myself so I thought I’d look and see if the US really has that many mass shootings (I live in England. England and Wales – population 58 million – have 50-60 gun-related deaths a year and that’s seen as too many). Here’s what I found: 435 mass shootings (about 36 a month) leaving 517 dead and 1,648 injured (43 dead and 147 injured per month). As Lucas Page would say, ‘Numbers don’t lie.’
I’ll be carrying on this series when ‘Under Pressure’ is published in August. If you’d like a taste of the audiobook version of ‘City Of Windows’, click on the SoundCloud link below.