Book review: Headlong, by Ron MacLean

HeadlongI got Headlong as a LibraryThing Early Reviewer giveaway. The plot sounded intriguing, and I haven’t read nearly enough thrillers recently, so I thought I’d give it a go.

It’s a hot Boston summer, and Nick Young, a washed-up journalist back in town to care for his dying father, is feeling the heat. Using his old skills to solve a mystery before the police do – to connect the dots between a major labor strike, a violent Occupy-style movement, and a murder that may involve his best friend’s teen son.

All in all, this is pretty solid crime-thriller writing. The story threads – Nick’s relationship with his dying, cantankerous father, his odd friendship with an old friend’s teenage son, the industrial action hijacked by various gangs of activists – are masterfully woven together. I always like a book that can make things matter on both a personal and wider level, and MacLean succeeds here with aplomb. His depiction of an initial strike by the city’s janitors spiralling out of control as activist and anarchist groups co-opt the dispute to further their own agenda is well-drawn. I enjoyed Nick’s internal reasoning, and his debates with his teenage friend, about the ethics of direct action weighed up against the need for change – it felt very true to life.

The actual crime isn’t clear until quite late on in the book, but I didn’t mind that. It could have felt very slow-paced, but the build-up to that point was so well handled that it managed to maintain a good pace. On the other hand, the ending felt a bit rushed: once the action arrives, it’s all over within a few pages, with one character unceremoniously killed off via an off-hand sentence at the end of a chapter.

I did enjoy this, but – and it’s a big but – I found the protagonist, Nick, astonishingly unlikeable. Now, it’s not necessary to like the main character in order to enjoy a book. Some great works of fiction have absolute monsters at their heart, and noir fiction (clearly an inspiration for this book) has a long history of thoroughly unpleasant protagonists. However, I’m not sure we were actually supposed to dislike Nick. I got the impression (and I could be wrong) that we were supposed to sympathise with him, as an everyman. I absolutely didn’t sympathise with him: he is selfish, self-centred, at times bull-headed and at others frustratingly passive.

The thing that got me the most was his vile lecherousness. He openly lusts after teenage girls, which is bad enough, but he also appears incapable of interacting with any woman without sizing up her attractiveness. This got really tedious after a while: it’s one of my pet hates in books, when male narrators continually introduce each female character with an appraisal of her fuckability. Particularly when, as here. the narrator in question is never called on his behaviour, and the reader clearly isn’t meant to see it as the massive character flaw that it is.

Overall, this is a decent thriller. It didn’t blow me away, but it was a good commuting read. I enjoyed it, but it loses points for the tedious sexism of the main character.

Verdict: 5/10

Leave a comment


  1. Eww…you totally lost me at the leching at teenage girls part. I don’t think I’m gonna try it

  2. Robyn

     /  October 22, 2013

    Yeah on the “ick” factor…Thanks for the honest review and for saving me some money. I quite like the book, ” No One Can Know” by author Adrienne LaCava. A fascinating subject that appeals to all ages, genders, and races.


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