Best known for his first novel The Ice Harvest, which was adapted for the screen, Scott Phillips has at last brought The Adjustment, his first novel since 2003. I’ll tell you right off the bat that I think it’s at least as good, if not better, than The Ice Harvest.
The gutsy move here was to have a very unlikable main character, a guy who’s also the narrator. Wayne Ogden is macho, self-centred and a bigot and is married to a gorgeous and kind woman. Yet he still feels the need to sleep with other women as often as humanly possible--and in Ogden’s case, it is very often. To him, men can be business partners, clients or enemies; women can cook for him, go to bed with him or shut up.
The story takes place in the late 1940s, in Wichita, Kansas. It opens with Ogden freshly returned from overseas after WWII: “And now I was back in my hometown, with a wife who looked like a movie star and a job that entailed more boozing and carousing than actual work.”
In Europe, Ogden had been a supply sergeant in the Quartermaster Corps. What he was supplying, while stationed in London then Rome, was much more than the usual stuff required by soldiers. He specialized in essentials needs that others couldn’t provide, and that made his black market operation very profitable; but he didn’t always end up with satisfied customers. Back in Kansas, Ogden starts receiving threatening letters. The anonymous sender is seeking bloody vengeance for something that happened overseas.
While Ogden tries to discover the identity of his new pen pal, his full-time job is to protect his boss, Everett Collins, from being replaced at the head of Collins Aircraft. The boss is a wealthy man but his extravagances (drinking and whoring) are too much for the board members. Ogden’s job is to foil the plans of the board by keeping Collins under control, or at least out of the newspapers. Problem is, Ogden acts as if he’s still overseas, running his own secret operation, and taking decisions as if he’s beyond the law. Violence and blackmail are on the menu, blood is spilled, lives end. Could there be some post-traumatic stress disorder in Ogden? Most probably, but that diagnosis didn't exist at the time.
So what makes The Adjustment a good book, you wonder? Well, it’s like the cliche about driving by the scene of an accident: you can’t help it and you do look, right? In Scott Phillips’s story, you do the same. Sensitive readers beware there is some hardcore sex and some graphic violence, but also lots of good laughs, sometimes even during the sex. At first you kind of like Ogden. He’s a man with a drive, with a focus, with ambition. He’s cunning and funny and intelligent. And he does love his wife. But because Ogden doesn’t care for limits-- or maybe isn't aware of them--he crashes through. When you think he’s gone as far as he can and that he’ll finally burn, he goes farther.
While reading the book, I often thought of Lou Ford, from Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. Ogden does have some of Ford’s characteristics but he’s less depraved and he’s not a serial killer. As with Ford though, Ogden also believes that there’s a good reason behind everything he does: if he drops his pants with a woman, if he blackmails someone, if he beats up or kills another; in his mind, he’s always right to do it.
Like Jim Thompson with Lou Ford, Scott Phillips successfully manipulates the reader via Wayne Ogden. He forces you to stop on the side of the road, to look at the crash and then to get out of your car to inspect every tiny details of this twisted wreckage of a man named Ogden.
The Adjustment is hardboiled, hardcore and hard to put down.
(previously posted at Crime Fiction Lover's website)
I owe thanks to Garrick Webster for the editing.