Stephen White worked as a psychologist before becoming a mystery and thriller author, and it shows in his work. He’s always trying to draw psychologically rounded characters who become grist for the mill of the more typical elements of his chosen genres. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but it almost kills his latest novel, The Siege, before making it oddly rewarding. White’s devotion to character development is welcome in this genre, but he sometimes indulges in too much of a good thing.
For the book’s first hundred pages or so, White spends his time carefully sketching in his main characters—Sam Purdy, a bullheaded Colorado cop who’s a minor character in his Alan Gregory series; Dee and Poe, respectively CIA and FBI agents who carry on a torrid, once-a-year affair and deal with Poe’s post-traumatic stress disorder after the Oklahoma City bombing; and Christine Carmody, the hostage negotiator dealing with a long, tense weekend. The book opens with a flash-forward to an unconventional explosion that leavens what follows, but that first hundred pages, as much as it enriches what comes, can be kind of a slog.
From there, though, the book is off like a shot. White has a great idea here—a bunch of Yale students are held hostage within one of the secret-society tombs on campus—and the ways he plays out the hostage crisis are utterly unlike the expected beats of the well-trod genre. And his villains aren’t just standard terrorists, either. They’re made of James Bond supervillain-type stuff, and they offer a meditation on what might happen if America’s enemies really started thinking big.
The novel’s conclusion is a little underwhelming, but it fits with White’s playing-against-expectations mold. It also helps that the book’s politics become suitably complex once it moves past an early vignette where two characters argue about which cable-news channel to watch, suggesting that the book will feature the same old “Righties like this; lefties like that!” kind of business. But The Siege’s real selling point is how White paints three wounded people trying to stop a crisis that seems almost to defy description. And that crisis, agonizingly unpredictable and terrifically paced, is such a doozy that it redeems the rest of the novel’s flaws.