HarperCollins: 404 pp., $26.99
William Boyd begins his new novel, "Ordinary Thunderstorms," with a set piece out of Alfred Hitchcock. Adam Kindred, a young climatologist visiting London for a job interview, chats with a stranger in a restaurant. On leaving, the stranger drops an important-looking file. Adam brings the file by the stranger's apartment, only to find the man in bed, stabbed and dying. (I'm really not giving anything away here, because all this happens within the first 10 pages.) With both the police and an undetermined number of more sinister parties on his trail, Adam must flee not only the crime scene but also his former life, abandoning any aspect of his identity -- family, social contacts, credit cards, cellphone, even his name -- that might lead his pursuers to him.
Adam is, obviously enough, a paradigmatic instance of that familiar Hitchockian trope, the Innocent Man in the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time. Like most such characters, he initially seems ordinary, even nondescript: Boyd describes him as "a tall, pale-faced young man, early thirties, even-featured with tired eyes, his short dark hair neatly cut and edged as if fresh from the barber." And like most such characters, he will by the end of the story be revealed to possess abilities and resources he never would have discovered if not for fate's intrusion into his life.
Or rather, fate's intrusion into his lives -- for by disappearing into London's underworld, Adam becomes, in essence, an entirely new person. Here, he discovers a hidden community, made up of thousands of human shadows, people of fluid identity and no fixed address who have disappeared from official existence or who were never part of it in the first place:
"He thought about the 600 people a week that went missing in this country, the boys and girls, the men and women, who walked out of their front doors, closing them behind them, knowing they would never return, or who climbed out of back windows and ran off into the night to join that vast population of living ghosts that were The Missing. . . . Only London was big and heartless enough to contain these lost multitudes."
The author of more than a dozen works of fiction, including the Whitbread-winning "A Good Man in Africa" and the Booker-shortlisted "An Ice Cream War," Boyd is highly adept at doing what novelists do best: exploring the multifarious possibilities implicit in human life. Adam's transformation from a milquetoast academic into a resourceful and resilient street person and, ultimately, a cunning and admirably vindictive defender of justice, is one component of this exploration. But so too is the rogues' gallery of secondary characters that Boyd sketches.
Particularly memorable is the prostitute Mhouse, a devoted single mother who violently attacks Adam on their first meeting but later shows him great tenderness (although not always for free). Indeed, a great many of these characters are notable for combining what might at first seem contradictory or irreconcilable traits. Even Jonjo Case, the hired killer who tracks Adam relentlessly through the story, is capable of a certain degree of compassion and affection -- so long as the object is Jonjo's dog and not a human being.
"Ordinary Thunderstorms" is an interesting if somewhat odd book. While a standard thriller would resolve with a climactic confrontation between Adam and his antagonists, the "climax" here features no direct interaction at all, and the "resolution" is complex, ambiguous and incomplete -- which is to say, realistic. For all that the book resists the conventions of the genre, though, such resistance is perhaps less robust than we might expect. (The depictions of London's lowlifes are reminiscent of Martin Amis, but whereas Amis would have expanded their portraits into a satire or sweeping social critique, Boyd is content to tell a story.)
If Adam learns that he is capable of making do with far less than he previously thought, he also discovers that he is capable of doing considerably more, both positively and negatively. (Stealing a blind man's white cane -- a considerable aid in the begging trade -- is far from the worst thing he is capable of.) We also learn something about Adam: This is not the first time he has been ejected from a comfortable life. In the U.S., a dalliance with a student cost him both his position as an assistant professor of climatology and his marriage. Perhaps that earlier fall from grace helps explain the strength and skill with which he navigates this more precipitous one.
Whatever the reason, Adam seems to have a better understanding than most of life's fragility and inherent vulnerability. "One stupid mistake," he muses partway through the novel, "one lapse, one near-unconscious answering of an atavistic sexual instinct -- that was all it took to put a perfectly secure life, a fairly happy and prosperous life, in free fall."
In fact, as he discovers, it can take even less: No mistake is required at all, simply bad luck. But, as he also discovers, the same longings for human contact that can lead to rupture and chaos may also lead us away from such disasters, and back into the land of the living. The same instincts that ruin our lives might also, if felt and acted on at the right moment, save them.
Jollimore is the author of "Tom Thomson in Purgatory," which won the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry.