Title: The Travelers
Author: Chris Pavone
Pavone, Chris (2017). The Travelers. New York: Broadway Books
PS3616.A9566 T74 2017
- When a woman with whom he has shared a harmless flirtation shows up at his hotel door with a gun, travel writer and food expert Will Rhodes discovers the real reason his job occasionally requires him to assume different names and deliver mysterious parcels.
- Travel writer Will Rhodes is on assignment for Travelers magazine in the wine region of Argentina when a beautiful woman makes him an offer he can’t refuse. Soon Will’s bad choices and dark secrets are taking him across Europe as he is drawn into a tangled web of international intrigue. And the people closest to him may pose the greatest threat of all.
Date Posted: June 26, 2017
Review by Janet Maslin
There are two kinds of spy-hopping in The Travelers, Chris Pavone’s third and most furiously peripatetic novel. The first is what an inquisitive whale does when it shoots its head above water. The second is what this espionage novel does when it jumps from Paris to London; the Gulf of Maine to Husavik, Iceland, in the space of three pages; then back to Paris, Husavik and New York City shortly thereafter. Mr. Pavone keeps his readers’ heads spinning and his main character, the travel writer Will Rhodes, on the run.
This author’s sly debut, The Expats, was more notable for suspense and sub rosa ingenuity than for wall-to-wall action. His second, The Accident, turned up the heat. With an insider’s knowledge of publishing—he worked as an editor before turning to novels of intrigue—Mr. Pavone wrote about an editor who landed the hottest unpublished tell-all manuscript in world history. Plausibility was a slight problem, but excitement was not. You barely caught your breath for long enough to wonder what kind of tell-all could live up to that hype.
Now he has raised the ante again. Even the prologue to The Travelers is frenzied. It has Will Rhodes waking up in a hotel room in Mendoza, Argentina, at 2:50 a.m. A menacing male intruder is in his room, wielding … a smartphone? The phone plays a quick clip of a sex scene. Then the woman from the clip materializes for just long enough to clobber Will with a right hook and leave him unconscious. And we’re off to the races.
What was all that about? Will lives with his wife, Chloe, in New York and works as a correspondent for Travelers magazine. This seems like an ordinary job. (“So tell me, Rhodes—are you ever going to turn in that sidebar on the Swiss Alps?”) But it isn’t. When Will makes one of his frequent trips to the airport, he is jokingly called 007 by the check-in guy, Reggie. He “likes to kid that Will isn’t a writer, he’s a spy; that his magazine is just a cover,” Mr. Pavone writes. “Over the years, Reggie hasn’t been the only person to make this tongue-in-cheek accusation.”
Not-exactly-spoiler alert: Reggie’s a smart guy.
And so is Will, or else he’d be dead before The Travelers got very far. The book keeps him on the run through countless efforts to recruit, frame, manipulate, trick and kill him. Readers have to be willing to believe that Will Rhodes is worth all this effort and scheming, even though he is no 007 and has no clandestine duties. Nor does he know about anyone else’s. Mr. Pavone carefully withholds any explanation for the morass that surrounds Will until very late in the game. And this author is so crafty about diversionary tactics that he gives readers no time to wonder what the hot pursuits are really about.
Some of those tactics involve Chloe. Early in the story, while Will is off getting himself permanently compromised and ripe for blackmail in Argentina, Chloe begins pursuing her own furtive career. Some of the people in this book turn out to have espionage connections, but Mr. Pavone would never dream of keeping things that simple: The reader must also sort out the real agents from the impostors. Will has the same problem, but in his case, the stakes are considerably higher. He’s never sure which, if not all, of these contingents want to use him and then get rid of him.
It’s not easy for a writer to maintain the intense kinetic energy that runs throughout The Travelers. It may not be entirely well advised, either. The pacing is so relentless that it feels unmodulated; Mr. Pavone’s other protagonists were given more down time to calculate and assess their situations than Will has. He is constantly driven by serial emergencies, to the point where a huge action scene involves a knife, a crossbow, explosives, a ringing telephone and a cliff, off which at least one character falls. The characters’ thinking? Strictly tactical. The conversation? Just taunts.
Granted, this is no moment for small talk. But the small details in Mr. Pavone’s work are always welcome. Connoisseurs of such stuff should enjoy the book’s 18-point list of instructions for the woman who’d like to lure a man to a romantic terrace restaurant, stab him with a switchblade and push him off a cliff.
There’s room for a lot more of this than the book includes. It’s gratifying to find Will casually noticing a man’s watch and later realizing that it belies something important about the man’s supposed identity. It’s nice to find that Malcolm Somers, the man who edits Travelers and has other, more secretive business to attend to, knows exactly what to pick up at a service station while being tailed by hostile strangers. Why buy coffee when he can leave them with flat tires on their cars?
The Travelers does confirm what Mr. Pavone’s first two books have established: that when it comes to quick-witted, breathless thrillers that trot the globe, his are top-tier. But if he chooses to let the next one breathe more deeply, that would work, too.
 Janet Maslin, “In ‘The Travelers,’ Danger at Every Destination,” New York Times (March 15, 2016). A version of this review appears in print on March 16, 2016, on Page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: “Danger in Every Destination for a Peripatetic Travel Writer”.