David Ambrose's suspense-filled The Discrete Charm of Charlie Monk offers one of the strangest, most labyrinthine plots I've ever encountered. It's a difficult novel to pin down: Bourne Identity meets Memento meets St. Elsewhere meets...but if I told you the final element it would give away the biggest surprise in the book.
The Charlie Monk to whose discrete charm the book's title refers is a highly trained government operative who works for an organization so secretive even he couldn't identify it. Given orders in clandestine meetings by his otherwise nameless master, Control, Charlie undertakes thrilling, James Bond-worthy missions--and in his off hours satisfies his Bond-sized appetites. Charlie is the perfect secret agent, focused single-mindedly on the task at hand, obedient, almost effortlessly lethal, and loyal, having been rescued by his current employers from an unpleasant childhood in an abusive orphanage. Charlie's memories of that period of his life are curiously indistinct, but that is something the book's other principal character can help him with: Dr. Susan Flemyng is a brilliant research scientist who specializes in the brain's retention of visual memories. She and Charlie cross paths repeatedly in the book.
For the most part the writing in The Discrete Charm of Charlie Monk is transparent, as is appropriate in a book you want to speed read through. (I clocked in at just over 24 hours.) In a few action scenes, however, the narrative seems abbreviated, as if a paragraph or two were left out in the rush of describing dramatic events, and the reader is left confused about exactly what is happening. But it doesn't matter. The Discrete Charm of Charlie Monk is a wild ride that's well worth the read.
Reviewed by Debra Hamel, author of Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece