Michael Robotham’s new novel, Life or Death, opens with a letter addressed to the reader, introducing the book as ‘a story that I’ve nurtured and turned over in my mind for more than twenty years — ever since I read a newspaper account of a man who had served a long prison sentence, but escaped the say before he was due to be released. Why? I asked myself.’
Robotham says it took him years to imagine an answer, ‘and even longer before I felt I had the skills to tell the story properly’; it is ten years since his first novel was published.
This background serves to explain why, Robotham writes, ‘I’m so excited about Life or Death…it’s the book I was meant to write’ (emphasis in original).
It’s a risky gambit, building up the reader’s expectations like this, and some may be inclined to approach Life or Death with a you’re-gonna-have-to-work-hard-to-impress-me attitude as a result. But as a writer, I’m encouraged by Robotham’s admission that this book he was meant to write was a long time coming, and that he had to hone his skills as a writer before he could do it justice.
As it is, Life or Death delivers on all Robotham’s promises, and I defy anyone reading this book to remain unmoved for long. A love story, crime thriller and morality tale rolled into one, Life or Death combines skillful plotting and unrelenting suspense, with characters real enough to make you cry. Really. In public.
Audie Palmer has spent a decade in prison for the armed robbery of an armoured vehicle in which four people died, including two gang members. Hospitalised with a gunshot wound to the head, Audie survived against the odds. But the seven million dollars stolen in the robbery was never recovered and a result, for ten years, Audie has been threatened and assaulted by fellow inmates, prison guards and criminal gangs, all wanting to know where the money is. When Audie escapes from prison the day before he is due to be released, everyone assumes he’s gone after the money. But the reason why he runs turns out to be far more complex, to do with a promise he made more than a decade earlier.
Audie is a wonderful creation. On the one hand, intriguing and charismatic — ‘like Yoda, Buddha and the Gladiator all rolled into one’, as his prison buddy Moss Webster puts it — on the other, it is Audie’s humanity that gives the novel its emotional punch.
The pace is unrelenting, the twists unpredictable. But what really made this book outstanding for me is the way it wraps a big picture morality tale about corruption, retribution and justice around a moving love story — actually, more than one love story, if you count the friendship between Audie and Moss.
Both epic and intimate, I was reminded of the novels of Dennis Lehane. And I could imagine Clint Eastwood directing the film version of Life or Death – ideally with Ryan Gosling playing Audie.
This is deeply satisfying crime fiction from a writer at the top of his game. But be warned: the ending may well make you cry, too.
Life or Death by Michael Robotham (2014), published by Hachette Australia, is released today.
I’ll be talking with Michael about Life or Death at the Bendigo Writers Festival at midday on 10 August 2014. See here for details.