Set Free by Anthony Bidulka – Anthony’s first standalone has a setting distant from the Saskatchewan based mysteries of his earlier two series featuring Russell Quant and Adam Saint.

Set Free mainly takes place in Boston though the locale is not immediately clear at the start of the book. Anthony unfolds action and then adds back story. The reader gradually discovers the characters and their histories.

The book is more complex in structure than Anthony’s previous books. It opens with an excerpt from a book written by Jaspar Willis, his protagonist. That book, also called Set Free, and therefore Anthony’s book Set Free have a great opening line:

I would have packed less if I knew I was going to die.

The Jaspar Set Free non-fiction is the Bidulka fictional Set Free.

Jaspar is kidnapped in Marrakech, Morocco on his way from the airport to his hotel. He is held in a dismal room. While there he is beaten and photographed as his kidnappers pursue an unknown goal.
Why Jaspar is in Morocco subsequently unfolds.

Jaspar and his wife, Jenn, unexpectedly had a daughter, Mikki. In a reversal of traditional gender duties Jaspar stays home and Jenn is the primary earner. While at home Jaspar pursues a relatively undistinguished writing career. Jenn is working hard as a lawyer.

Their lives are upended when Jaspar writes a book that becomes a best seller. Anthony takes the opportunity to become the reviewer of his character’s book:

      In the Middle was a (mostly) fictionalized account of an everyday
guy who takes a year-long leave of absence from regular life to
travel the world. An earlier reviewer described the book as
“gut-wrenching, side-splitting, surprisingly heartfelt, a
must-read for anyone wading through the mess of midlife.
When the New York Times called it “the Eat, Pray Love for middle
aged men and the women trying to love them,” sales exploded.

With success life becomes hectic. Jaspar rides the publicity wave now demanded of the famed in America. Some fortune accompanies the fame but Jaspar needs more than one best seller for a secure financial life.

Tragedy strikes the family living the American dream. To say more may spoil the book for some readers but I cannot review it without discussing those events. Venture no further if you prefer to limit your knowledge of the book.

Mikki is abducted. Jaspar and Jenn are left barely functioning. The intense strain is exacerbated by whether Jaspar is at fault. Their friend, Katie Edwards, a local T.V. reporter helps them cope with the media onslaught.

While the story of Mikki’s kidnapping is being revealed Jaspar is moved from captivity in the city to the country. With little food his body gradually deteriorates. His mind becomes pre-occupied with Mikki. In the forms of a child and as a teenager she joins him at night. While surreal the story is powerful in imagining how body and mind react to prolonged deprivation.

As I was feeling uncomfortable that the story was drifting into the too incredible that diminished my enjoyment of Anthony’s previous book, The Women of Skawa Island,  Anthony brings the plot together in a truly unexpected and credible way.

I have not read a plot where the lead character is both the parent of a kidnapped child and a kidnap victim himself. Anthony delves into the mind of Jaspar in both scenarios. The title of the book becomes perfect.

Beyond those issues Anthony explores a writer’s responsibility to the facts and a journalist’s ethics in the midst of a huge story.

Anthony’s real life love of travel is reflected in the book by setting a significant part of the story in Morocco. All of his books have had his lead character travel to a fascinating distant land as part of the plot.

Anthony does well in building tension and keeping the reader off-balance. Set Free is a rare intelligent thriller unlike most American thrillers in that there is not a steady accumulation of bodies. A reader can enjoy the book as a thriller yet be left thinking about freedom. Anthony has written a fine book. (And take a look at his website to see how the book was inspired by a trip made to celebrate his 50th birthday.)

****

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