Despite its title and cover blurb ("What happens when an average nuclear family is hit by a one-megaton bombshell?"), A HALF LIFE OF ONE is nothing to do with radioactivity. The fallout it describes is of a different kind: that of the effects on a man, his family and personal universe when, as the novel opens, the bank forecloses on his business. Nick Dowty is a dynamic entrepreneur who cannot accept that his company Merc has been repossessed; that his wife Maureen, a teacher, is now the sole earner of the family; and because the couple's house and savings guaranteed Nick's loans, he and Maureen will have to spend the rest of their lives repaying their debts.
Unable to deal with this cataclysm on any emotional level, Nick spends his days in denial as well as his pyjamas, hiding from the postman, sticking unopened bills in various hiding places in the house, refusing to answer the phone, and cooking corned beef and cabbage for tea when Maureen and Martin, his teenage son, return home at night. Evenings are spent in silence in front of the TV or by Nick pretending to have been to the Job Centre in response to Maureen's increasingly pressing questions.
As things become even more desperate, and the tension is becoming unbearable, Nick dreams up a plan. On several occasions, he has seen a celebrity businesswoman fishing in a local stream. (The book is set in the Scottish countryside.) Idly, he wonders what she is worth, and thinks about kidnapping her and claiming a ransom. Soon, this casual thought becomes an obsession, and before he knows it, Nick is meticulously planning how he is going to carry out the crime. He becomes obsessed by his scheme, treating it like one of his business strategy problems. He isn't fazed by the poverty of his resources, digging out an old bicycle and an air rifle, and spending his last few pounds on some packets of soup for his intended victim to keep her alive for the time it will take to collect the ransom. Although there is humour in the shoestring way in which Nick has to operate, this book is by no means a comedy. There are plenty of nasty elements to come, and of course, he does not anticipate the inevitable personal cost of the events he sets in motion, let alone the outcome of his demand for money.
Events rush ahead at a furious pace in this energetic novel, carrying the reader along. Nick's bluster and self-delusion are realistically portrayed – Robert Maxwell-like, he can't accept himself as anything other than the magnate that he once was: the idea of a 9 to 5 job like everyone else, as suggested to him by his wife, just fails to compute for him. Maureen, too, is sympathetically developed from being the little woman who knows nothing of her husband's financial life, to becoming the only sensible and restraining influence on him – particularly true of the rather "Lord of the Flies"-like climax of the kidnap interlude.
There are a couple of creepy twists at the end of the tale, with a strong hint that the cycle will begin all over again – in a future book, perhaps. Let's hope so, because A HALF LIFE OF ONE is a very welcome addition to the thriller genre.
The author, Bill Liversidge, blogs at View from the Pundy House.