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Pay Out and Pay Back

a tale of murder and deceit

by Barbara A. Scott

ISBN - 0963713426
September 1999
Zenar Books, PO Box 686, Rancho Cordova, CA 95741-0860
Trade paper, 213 pages, $12.50

This review first appeared in the Midwest Book Review in November, 1999

The Payload is Espionage

a review by Ellen Larson

One suspects that the "deceit" mentioned in the title kicker for book three of Barbara Scott's series about an international Team of under-cover agents is a reference to the machinations of the conspirators trying to steal industrial secrets from Marcolm and Blake, Ltd., developers of remote imaging systems. But it also foreshadows the carryings on of the Team members themselves: very British Brad, half-Thai Paul, all-American Jack, Italian Geilla, and Greek Kon truly put the cloak back in the cloak-n-dagger as they dodge through this intricate murder escapade set in sedate Plymouth, England. It's as if Simon Templer has paid a visit to St. Mary Mead.

Who killed Elaina Spengler, and why she was hanging around Marcolm and Blake, seducing its employees, anyway? Those are the questions that send the Team down half a dozen intertwining rabbit holes as they try to save the company from ruin. And each time the trail of clues takes a turn, the Team members change identities to smoke out the truth. They morph into cool scientist, anxious home buyer or helpful social worker as the situation dictates---although impersonating an officer of the law is the preferred disguise, since it provides a license to ask pertinent questions and demand answers. This illegality in the pursuit of justice might be more than a little scary in less trustworthy hands. For although Geilla and Paul occasionally experience a pang of guilt as they turn the screws on a sympathetic suspect, they spare no vigor in the turning. But the Team's motives, like the gang from Mission Impossible--renowned for similar daring capers accomplished half by bluff, half by skill--are above suspicion. It is the guilty who will pay up in the end.

As always in Scott's books, there is a large cast of supporting characters, drawn with the sharpness and total lack of sentimentality we have come to expect from this devotee of the character sketch. In this book there is more lightness than previously, and a more subtle choice of words, both of which make for welcome variety. It is delightful to see Scott thus spreading her literary wings, letting us see the humorous side to her characters' epic struggles against the odds. Of note are the lonely Mrs. Burnell--shunned by her neighbors as a boring old gossip until Paul (who would surely see the good in a rogue elephant and instantly woe him into willing submission) recognizes her true worth--and Tony, the archetypal Scott character: unlovable, under-appreciated, under-achieving and about to have his true worth tested by a very unpleasant encounter with violence:

"Tony Schaffer surveyed the huge chocolate covered doughnut he held in his right hand and pondered the best course for biting in to get the least amount of icing on his face. Should he nibble daintily from the edge and chew around the perimeter, following the lay of the dough, or should he plunge boldly across the middle and risk getting chocolate in his ears?

"...For a moment he was so engrossed in staring at the long, shiny blade of the butcher knife he scarcely noticed the man who was pointing it at him. Unconsciously he stepped backward, fell against the counter, and dropped his pastry. He watched it roll away across the gray carpet scattering bits of icing as it went."

While, as you see, the dagger is still in evidence, Pay Out is noticeably less morose than the first two books (Always in a Foreign Land; Caught in the Web). Previously, the Team was pitted against very unpleasant people in a fast-paced world of high-stakes rollers. Crazed terrorists, corrupt border guards, Swiss ski instructors, kidnappers, and brilliant scientists were the norm. The ante is lower here (this is a British mystery, and the John Le Carre mood is absent), and we get confirmation of what we have suspected all along: no one is safe from the Team's determination to straighten out other people's problems. You don't have to be a reformed terrorist to gain their sympathy and help. Little Mysie, whose love for an abandoned child is her strength, and her boyfriend Davey, who wants only to be a carpenter, are the protagonists in a well-constructed sub-plot.

However, the disguises can't hide the fact that the real faces of the Team members are a bit blurred in this one. Our Kon, that appealing street urchin turned international banker, seems particularly featureless (possibly because his trials were so omnipresent in books one and two). He only pulls his knife once (at least he is still carrying it along with his securities portfolio), and does absolutely nothing self-destructive. This would be bearable if the spotlight had been turned onto one of the other members of the Team (as it was on Paul and his fear of failure in book two). But the stage is lit with a white light that doesn't favor either individual features or shadows, and one is left with the sense that the Team's roles were interchangeable, their personal journeys on hold. More personal involvement next time, please.

In any review of a Scott book, one cannot get away without addressing her writing voice, which is whawt, after all, makes this action/espionage series unique. Whether she knows it or not, Scott is leading the campaign for the rehabilitation of the declarative sentence in the popular novel. Her expositions are legendary--why use ten pages of dialogue when a one paragraph recap will do?

She is not interested in trendy writing theories, which mandate instant gratification and unrelenting thrift of language--hang on, she has a story to tell! Tired of the same old same old first person singular point of view?--discover Scott, who has as many third person viewpoint shifts as she has characters. She will happily detour from the main plot to give you a new character's back story, and literally every character--major, minor, villain, saint--gets the treatment. And speaking of characters (again--but then they are her strength), you won't find any cutsy caricatures here, mouthing generic perky dialogue and superficially clever wisecracks. Scott's characters are never great thinkers; if they seek happiness, they do so without skill and without hope in a world where unhappiness is the norm. Her protagonists are not perfect, and are identified by their flaws. Good is distinguished from bad not by success or enlightenment, but by the ability to survive repeated disaster and still keep alive a flame of desire for something better. Scott's technique is not fool-proof--sometimes you get lost and sometimes you think you've been there before--but you never doubt her sincerity.

The overall result is unusual and surprising: a clear, distinctive voice, inviting you to journey into a world drawn in great detail with an honest pen--and that's the pay off for the reader.