Book Review: Clean Hands
Clean Hands is a slick, fast-moving thriller, written with skill and aplomb by a talented writer who knows how to keep action flowing swiftly. It’s very neatly crafted, and reads like a taut suspense movie. Patrick Hoffman does a lot really well with his novel, but there are a few shortcomings that keep it from being terrific.
The storyline centers around litigation over a powerful bank. Elizabeth Carlyle isn’t thrilled with her job as a corporate lawyer, but when one of her underlings’ phone– filled with critical information– is stolen, she’s desperate to salvage her career and reputation, and she hires Valencia Walker, a woman who has built a career out of resolving tricky problems, to retrieve the phone and save the firm. And all of this must be done discreetly, so everybody keeps the titular well-washed appendages.
Clean Hands has a solid premise and the narrative is told skillfully. Unfortunately, there are some major shortcomings that keep the story from reaching its fully satisfying potential. The first is characterization. This book is all about the plot, and a good one it is, too. Unfortunately, it needs actual human beings we can care about to make it shine. We know that Elizabeth is deeply unhappy with her life, and she fantasizes about leaving it all for a simpler low-stress existence in the French countryside, but more is needed about how she got sucked into a soulless corporate job and why she’s stayed so long in it. We know her husband is disinterested and unresponsive, but how did their marriage deteriorate to this state? Why is Elizabeth simultaneously willing to give up and so scared of failing? Even after reading the novel carefully, I got glimpses into her psyche, but not enough to make me feel like I really understood her, and therefore, I couldn’t care about her.
It’s all about the stakes at play here. Elizabeth is fighting to save a job she hates. If Valencia retrieves the phone and materials, Elizabeth keeps her rich, prominent life of emptiness and steadily worsening depression. If Valencia fails, Elizabeth may reboot her life in a way that may bring temporary relief, but no lasting happiness as she’s likely to bring all her emotional baggage with her. As for Valencia, success or failure doesn’t have that much of an impact on her. Win or lose, she’s likely to keep her lucrative company and continue be hired for top-secret missions. All this could have been changed with a simple subplot showing that despite the respectable outward appearances, due to bad investments or other circumstances, Valencia was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Not only that, but a shadowy government agency is carefully monitoring this case, deciding whether to make Valencia their go-to fixer or not. If she fails to bring the case to a successful conclusion, Valencia faces disaster. Succeed, and she enjoys a profitable future. Given the moral ambiguity of the bank, the reader isn’t even sure if they want Elizabeth and Valencia to succeed.
Valencia’s entire character is marred by missed opportunities. Soon after we meet her, we find out that she’s having an affair with her right-hand man, who’s married. We find out that Valencia initiated it, and it’s all about sex, with no deep emotion behind it. Ultimately, this early revelation makes both of them look tawdry and unsympathetic, especially at a time when we need to like and root for the pair. Aside from some colorful characters in the underworld who make brief appearances, there aren’t any characters that are particularly likeable or memorable in Clean Hands. Not only that, but we know that Valencia was involved in some shady top-secret government work in her past. If she’d been battling with her conscience afterwards, struggling to make amends for past wrongdoing, it would have made her a much more complex and interesting character. As it stands, she’s detached, and we need more explanation of why she stays in this line of work. Is it money? Adrenaline? It’s isn’t out of a refined moral sense. As it stands, Valencia’s a shadowy cipher when she ought to be a compelling antiheroine.
(Oblique spoilers follow!)
Even when one character is trapped in a situation where even the dimmest reader can see that he’s about to be murdered and it’s going to be made to look like a suicide, it’s hard to feel the sympathy we’re supposed to feel for the poor guy because he doesn’t seem to see his doom coming, when anybody with an I.Q. higher than four should have all of their mental warning sirens blaring.
This also leads to some bizarrely unfounded reasoning on Valencia’s part. When she analyzes the scene of the supposed suicide, she’s suspicious because he was wearing his business suit from work. What’s so odd wearing those clothes? Couldn’t he have wanted to be well-dressed when his body was discovered, or wouldn’t it be logical if he was too distraught to change his clothes? She thinks that given his psychological state, he would’ve changed into a leather jacket he wore earlier in the novel. Why? It’s not like the leather jacket was his favorite garment or his signature look. In fact, earlier in the novel, the character expresses awkward shame over admitting to wearing that leather jacket. Why? What’s so embarrassing about that piece of outerwear? It’s a popular fashion choice, yet the character blushes as if he was caught wearing a baby bonnet and diaper on a busy New York City street. Yet Valencia confidently deduces that he had a powerful psychological bond with the leather jacket. Valencia’s assertion that he’d want to spend his final moments on Earth clad in his leather jacket isn’t backed up with any evidence or reasoning, and it makes no sense.
Additionally, certain details are used too often in Clean Hands. The same word is used over and over to describe different characters’ physiques, and I thought it an odd coincidence that two separate people got energy boosts from making smoothies. This is an easily fixed issue– all that’s needed are some synonym replacements.
Ultimately, the ending comes too bluntly and is too open-ended to work fully. Too many criminals are uncaught, too many secrets are unrevealed, and too many unanswered questions are present for the abrupt act of violence to work effectively. Reading Clean Hands, I was disappointed at times, but I was constantly aware of just how easy it would be to make it so much better. With a little more depth to the characters, some firmer resolutions, and more clear-cut endings to the storylines, it could be a stellar thriller. Hoffman has a lot of talent as a writer, and I look forward to future novels from him, especially if he learns from his past shortcomings.
By Patrick Hoffman
Atlantic Monthly Press
$25.99 Digital List Price