The Distance by Helen Giltrow (Doubleday, Sept 9, 2014)-Karla is really Charlotte Alton, but Charlotte is really Karla. Confused? Don’t be. Charlotte Alton is a socialite, known for belonging to the most sparkling circles of London, confident and beautiful. Karla is a woman who gets things done using subterfuge and tradecraft, helping to cover the tracks of criminals and acting as a resource in bringing down those that would do others harm. Karla has been thinking about stepping away from her secretive life, but a man from her past, Simon Johanssen needs her for a new job: a hit on Catherine Gallagher, a doctor that supposedly did a very, very bad thing, and is now in a government sanctioned penal colony called the Program. Karla is very thorough and the fact that the target in question can’t be identified is a problem, but she’s assured that the client can be trusted. So now Karla’s job is to get Johanssen into the Program under a false name, so he can plan the hit, and it’s going to take everything, and everyone, at her disposal to guarantee his safety. The problem is, Johanssen is on the run from a hit that went very wrong years ago, and if anyone recognizes him, it could cost him his life. Meanwhile, a man that Karla worked with has committed suicide and she’s worried he may have left clues as to her identity. The clock is ticking, not only for Karla, but for Johanssen as he embeds himself in the rough, dangerous world of the Program and also gets to know his target, whose crime has yet to be clear. Did Catherine really commit a heinous crime or was she instead a victim, and can Karla keep her own secret identity secret?
The Distance is told in short chapters, alternating between Karla/Charlotte’s first person voice, Johannsen, and the intelligence man on Karla’s trail. Karla is determined to find out the truth about Catherine, even as she risks herself more and more in order to get it, and also to keep Johannsen safe. Johannsen is getting to know Catherine himself, inside the Program, after he earns a slot in the clinic where Catherine practices what pretty much amounts to frontier medicine until a patient can be evacuated out, and he also becomes the target of a sadistic man named Brice that’s just biding his time until he can get Johannsen alone. The Program is not a happy place and really, seems only marginally better than regular prison. During those scenes I couldn’t help but think of Mad Max, mainly because it’s such a lawless place, and it’s filled with brutal people, but Giltrow keeps things firmly rooted in reality, even if there is a distinct dystopian thread. I loved the contrast between Karla’s high society circles against the grimy brutality of the Program, and although Johannsen is a killer, and Karla certainly operates outside the law, it doesn’t mean they don’t ultimately yearn to do the right thing. I admit, there is a history between Karla and Johannsen that I would have loved to see explored more, but I know why the author did things the way she did, and it makes me hope we’ll see more of these characters. I couldn’t put this one down. I had to know what Cate was guilty of, and Giltrow does a fantastic job of drawing out the suspense without it being a frustrating affair. You’ll get the answers, but it’s a wild ride to get there, and it gets violent, and really creepy along the way. There is a twist, but it probably won’t be what you expect (I didn’t), and I love that about it.
The Distance is an unusual book, but in the very best way, combining espionage and thriller elements to cinematic effect. This one just begs to be on the big screen. Giltrow doesn’t waste words, and it adds a certain elegance to a story that is about as gritty as it gets. If you’re in the mood for an intelligent thriller that doesn’t let up, look no further.