Verdict: Jeff Bond’s THE WINNER MAKER is a fun, well-crafted, well-paced, top-notch debut thriller and a meditation on the nature of winning.
Every year, charismatic, unpredictable high school teacher/coach Bob Fiske selects “Winners;” the talented students he urges to “live big.” His lifelong commitment to the Winners leads him to pay a student’s Stanford tuition, to fund another’s tech start-up … and, at 74, to maintain a mysterious relationship with a beautiful 16-year-old student. Does his boundary-breaking involvement with students have a darker side? Certainly, he’s made enemies: from the school principal, to drug-dealing gang members, to influential developer, MetroBuild.
The beloved teacher’s disappearance prompts Becky, a school counselor, to gather four of Fiske’s past Winners: Eric, a developer; Lydia, an academic; Doug, a quarterback-turned-currency-broker; and his wife, Steph, an up-and-coming advertising executive. These four ex-students, each uniquely marked by Fiske’s vision of their capability, are pulled from their adult world of Ruby on Rails and baby monitors back to their high school days to find the missing teacher.
The structure and pacing of this thriller are top-notch. Bond carefully builds suspicion, and then astutely deconstructs it. He drives the story forward deftly: there is foreshadowing, but it is never heavy-handed; there is just enough resolution, doubt, action, and empathy to create a fun, compelling page-turner. There are, however, a few elements that dragged this otherwise good novel down. The cultural coding of the anonymous teens on the El train is hard to take at this point in history. The literary references distracted from, more than enriched, the plot. But these issues might be placed in a folder labeled “Completely Forgiveable Imperfections” in Fiske’s intriguing file cabinet.
Bond delivers much of this thriller through the voices of Steph and Eric. He draws these two with sensitivity and wit. In Steph we see a capable, driven young woman routinely undercut in the larger world because she is attractive and female. In the often-inappropriate Eric, who, facing a dangerous confrontation, sees, “some Larry David-cum-Terminator-1000 shaking a liquid metal fist,” Bond’s writing reverberates with the charm of Christopher Moore.
Good genre fiction often offers something else along with a well-crafted story. THE WINNER MAKER is no exception. The dark and light facets of ambition run as a thematic undercurrent throughout. Bond’s exploration is nuanced and avoids obvious conclusions. His interest in this theme never overwhelms the story. This is a fun, literate, debut. In the author’s capable hands, chilling moments, well-drawn action, believable motivation, expert pacing roll into a solid, fast-paced thriller. Kudos, Mr. Bond.
~Ellen Graham for IndieReader