If you like Scott Turow, Stan Lee, Dan Brown or Michael Crichton, then you are in the target audience for Kevin Guilfoile’s novel “The Thousand.” Unfortunately, like smoked duck ravioli with wasabi-tomatillo sauce, Guilfoile has fallen under the sway of one influence too many.
“The Thousand” starts as a legal drama, zooming in on the moral predicament of criminal lawyer Reggie Vallentine. Vallentine has become a media obsession and a household word for his defense of the music director of the Chicago Symphony. Thanks to him, genius composer-conductor Solomon Gold was acquitted of the mutilation and murder of Erica Liu, a young violinist in his orchestra. But shortly afterward, Gold himself was shot to death, apparently by Liu’s father, who then committed suicide the next day. From the police point of view, that was that. Case closed. Yet Vallentine, who was present at Gold’s murder, knows things they don’t. Troubling things.
Lying in a hospital bed during this mayhem was Gold’s daughter Canada, called “Nada,” a girl who suffered from such terrible ADD that doctors implanted a neurostimulator device in her brain. Like a Marvel Comics heroine, she woke up with super powers of observation. And her life is forever changed in other ways: With her father dead, she is alone—her cold, distant mother barely registers as a parent (she doesn’t even visit Nada in the hospital).
Ten years later, when the novel’s main action occurs, Nada has become a pretty cool customer herself. And she has skills. She can read a message being texted from across the room; she can assess a young woman for a few seconds in a bar and come up with her name, her lipstick shade, her medical and dental history, and the fact that she is left-handed but plays tennis with her right. “You picked up all that since you sat down?” asks a prospective employer.
“Now multiply that by a hundred,” says the tiny, tough and lovely one.
Nada’s superhuman talents have made her a sought-after investigator and jury consultant as well as an extremely proficient gambler—the kind that gets barred from casinos. Now living in Las Vegas, she’s caught the eye of Wayne Jennings, the head of security at the Colossus. He tracks her movements—more because he’s in love with her than anything else. To repay him for tolerating her at the blackjack table, she shares her observations about the various cheaters hanging around the hotel. Nobody can get away with nothing anymore; may as well leave your Rohypnols at home.
When the secret society known as the Thousand, who are devotees of the ancient Greek mathematician Pythagoras, targets Nada for death, Wayne chucks everything and risks his life to save her.
Wayne realizes you don’t mess with those Pythagoreans. They crash planes with their cellphones and orchestrate disasters, all in the course of conducting what is essentially a gang war between their two opposing factions, the acusmatici and the mathematici. The acusmatici take a fundamentalist, spiritual view of Pythagoras’ numeric principles, while the mathematici believe in enriching themselves and bringing the world closer to a state of perfection called harmonia. Sad to say, in the name of harmonia, they must brutally kill each other and many other people. In fact, “legend has it that the mathematici like to use big disasters to disguise small crimes"—like Hurricane Katrina, Guilfoile writes, or 9/11. Now they want to kill Nada to repo her neurotransmitter and use it for bigger plans.
They also want to get their hands on Nada’s father’s most famous work, his completion of Mozart’s unfinished “Requiem,” believed to be a musical embodiment of the divine equations they’re all so jazzed up about. On the way to this goal, they have to kill quite a few people, and most of the characters who survive end up in blacked-out Chicago, where the crazy chase scenes begin. Without electricity, the Windy City goes as wild and lawless as Jurassic Park, and everybody’s got a gun. Or a violin.
Despite the emphasis indicated by the title and the denouement, Kevin Guilfoile would have had better luck without Pythagoras, his equations and his vicious disciples. It’s the least successful aspect of the novel, and he had plenty going on without it. Canada Gold is an emotionally realistic superhero, and her career and relationships set against the continuing fallout of her father’s death and her mother’s unfolding involvement in this dark past would have made a great story.
Winik is the author of “First Comes Love” and “The Glen Rock Book of the Dead.”