Buying Time by Pamela Samuels Young
I usually tend to have a hit and miss relationship with thrillers, as opposed to my mainly antagonistic relationship with cozy murder mysteries. When I was offered the opportunity to read and review Buying Time, I thought it might be different from the other thrillers I’ve read, since Pamela Samuels Young is a woman of color, as opposed to the white gentlemen who seem to dominate the field both outside the books and in them. I was absolutely right–I physically could not put Buying Time down.
Buying Time focuses on the viatical business, where terminally ill people sell their insurance policies to a broker. The broker then finds an investor willing to back the policy, and the terminally ill person receives a significant amount of money. After their death, the investors make very good money. When Waverly Sloan is disbarred and seeking a way to maintain his lavish lifestyle, he finds himself working at Live Now, a viatical broker. All seems well, until Waverly’s clients start dying in accidents, rather than of their terminal illness. When U.S. Attorney Angela Evans gets a hold of the case, she starts investigating the mysterious death of Claire Erickson, late wife of the soon-to-be Attorney General, Lawrence Erickson–who doesn’t want anyone poking around his past. But those cares are soon going to look quite small next to whoever is killing the rest of Waverly’s clients…
The great part about Buying Time is the characterization. The good guys are good, but human–Angela endures a controlling relationship because she doesn’t think she’ll do better, and Waverly is willing to look the other way in his business as long as it pays the bills. But Waverly would never cheat on his beloved wife, as flighty and materialistic as she is, and once Angela discovers new prospects, she stands up to her fiance, who quickly shows his true colors. The villains are absolutely vile but also pathetic, in a way–I think Young is making a comment about the insecurity of sexual predators here, and I quite liked that the romantic subplot and the political plot were linked by this. This is also the first thriller I’ve read where the main protagonists are people of color. On her website, Young mentions that she was inspired to start writing because of the dearth of interesting characters of color in legal thrillers, and she’s definitely pulled through with Waverly and Angela. They’re good, but they’re human–they make mistakes. I quite enjoyed them.
When I say I couldn’t put Buying Time down, I absolutely mean it. I’ve been trying to get to bed earlier, and I actually had an opportunity to go to bed at ten, like a normal person… but I stayed up until midnight reading this because every time I turned out the lights and tried to sleep, I wanted to know what happened next. Young does a marvelous job of weaving in various different story lines into the main story. While I was happy to read about Angela’s romance, because it revealed more about an interesting character, it ends up being important in how they solve the mystery. I don’t care for a lot of padding or bloat in a novel, especially thrillers, which I feel should be sort of pared down, and Young completely avoids that. Everything is important to the mystery of how Claire died and who is killing off the Live Now clients.
Young’s writing is nice and clear, with shifts depending on the character viewpoint, despite being written in third person. When Erickson and Becker, his ambitious lackey, take charge of a chapter, you can feel their misogyny drip off the page. When Waverly takes charge, you feel he’s an honestly good guy looking for the easy way out. This, I feel, is a real strength of Young’s. While she does discuss Erickson’s view on women, you make the connection between that and his dark secret based on subtext in the writing, instead of being flat told out. I’ve said before that I’m awfully fond of authors who don’t come from a traditional literary background, because there’s usually something unique about their writing, which is completely true of Young, a former corporate lawyer. The mystery, like any good mystery, doesn’t have a glaring solution, although it makes great sense once we learn what happens. (And she makes the inevitable reveal monologue work!) It’s interesting and bigger than any of the characters realize.
This isn’t to say that Buying Time is perfect. Young occasionally uses Zack, an ambitious co-worker of Angela’s, to make twee references to a book deal and a film about the events of the novel, which was fine once, but a little grating once Zack starts casting it in his head. Angela’s desire to deal with her ex-fiancé on her own can seem a little out of character, especially since she’s in law and knows plenty about domestic violence, but I can chalk that up to the need to get Angela and Waverly in the same room. And despite using proper swearing when the character calls for it, Erickson uses “freakin’” a lot, which makes him sound a bit young. Still, if you’re looking for a solid thriller, Buying Time delivers.
Bottom line: Buying Time is a thriller with wonderfully human characters, tight editing, and a thrilling plot that makes it impossible to put down. For anyone sick of subpar thrillers with wooden characters, Buying Time will remind you why you like the genre.
I received a free copy of this book for promotional purposes.