Writing a good protagonist is obviously a tricky business. You can have all the plot ideas you want, but if there’s nobody to carry them they won’t go anywhere. The problem is that people disagree about what makes a good protagonist. Take Holden Caulfield, for example. Is he the voice of a generation or just a whiny runt with first world problems? (It’s the latter). Unfortunately, as far as No Exit is concerned, your mileage may vary.
The premise of the novel is enticing if somewhat of a downer. Art student Darby Thorne is on her way to Utah to see her dying mother when she is caught in a blizzard as she passes through Colorado. With the roads now impassable she seeks shelter at a remote highway rest stop, along with four strangers. At first the evening seems like it might just be a nuisance – the coffee is disgusting, there is no phone connectivity and no WiFi, and there is little to do at the rest stop. But when Darby goes out in search of cell phone reception she spots something unexpected: a child, locked in the back of a van. But whose van is it? Where did the child come from and which nefarious plans does the kidnapper have? With no help forthcoming and unable to trust any of her fellow travellers, Darby must find a way to save the child.
So far so good. Now, on with the bad parts: Darby is a fucking moron.
I mean, she’s got spunk, she’s got heart, she’s got zest. She’s also got shit for brains. For one, she decides to drive through mountainous terrain in Colorado in the middle of winter in a) her crappy car without b) snow chains or c) cell phone battery or a charger (the cell phone, by the way, is a mystery of its own. The battery goes from 15% to 3% within an hour yet lasts almost until morning on that last 3%). And she’s so preoccupied with being the hero that she never stops to consider what is clearly the most sensible approach for all parties involved: write down the license plate and call the cops as soon as she can. Instead, Darby goes out snooping around with all the subtlety of a Scooby Doo villain. Not that it matters, because it’s pretty clear to everyone but Darby who the villain is from the get go. He practically comes in wearing a t-shirt that reads I AM THE BAD GUY. The mysterious child in the van, on the other hand, is practically a genius. She’s supposed to be seven but acts and talks like a twenty year old. That doesn’t appear to be a deliberate choice by the author; more like he’s never really been around children and hasn’t bothered to find out.
The novel sort-of works if you’re willing to engage in some major suspension of disbelief; at the heart of it there’s a pretty decent cat-and-mouse game. But the characters fall flat, some of the twists are predictable and some of them are just ludicrous. The ending is a total red herring. Adams’ writing is tense, though, and the interactions between the characters who aren’t the villain are entirely believable. The dread that Darby feels is almost palpable. Ultimately, though, the novel suffers from its protagonist, and that is a shame.