When it comes to novels, not all thrillers are created equal.
Some are simply potboiler exercises in suspense, page-turners by virtue of a breathless, headlong rush from one fantastical event to another.
But, once in a while, another comes along that is riveting because the observation of scene, incident and character rings true, imbued with a clear authority of authenticity.
White Rock writer Keith Costelloe’s stunning debut novel Drawn Into Danger (Friesen Press, 2022) is definitely in the latter camp.
Subtitled Living on the Edge in the Sahara, it’s a compelling evocation of Algeria in the late 1970s as seen through the eyes of Dave, a callow young Englishman of 24, working on his first overseas assignment as an English teacher.
It’s a heady environment for an innocent abroad – the fascinating exoticism of a foreign land juxtaposed with the devil-may-care Bohemianism of a small community of young British and North American expatriates, most of them also English teachers.
Dave finds tempting opportunities to explore his own bisexuality, but danger also lurks behind seemingly innocent situations – not the least of it the tinderbox political climate of Algeria at the time – that threatens to explode into violence at any time.
Costelloe’s spare but evocative prose weaves together a palpable portrait of a place and time – but also the stories of Dave’s friends: among them the charming Moussa, inextricably caught up in informing for the Algerian government; the enigmatic former student Farid, with connections in high places; Liz, a fellow young teacher from England, who has been unfairly victimized because of her sexual inexperience, and Sue, an attractive, liberated and sophisticated young American who fascinates Dave.
When apparently inconseqential events turns deadly serious for Dave’s circle, the page-turning suspense kicks into high gear.
Given the impressively authentic narrative, it’s little surprise to learn that British-born Costelloe knows whereof he writes – he, too, lived and worked in Algeria as a teacher from 1978 to 1981.
But, aside from some short stories he wrote while he was there, this is his first attempt to find some literary closure for his experiences there.
While informed by those experiences, Drawn Into Danger, it should be noted, is not autobiographical – Costelloe has taken dramatic license by merging observations of different kinds of people and situations he observed while he was there.
“It’s a fictional story,” he said. “I wan’t ever involved in a coup. But the settings are where I lived and where I travelled.”
Making Dave bisexual was specifically employed as a means to heighten the emotional drama of the plot, he added.
“There are also so many books you read where all the characters are heterosexual,” he added.
“Why not have ‘normal’ people, who just happen to be bisexual?”
“When I first tried writing about those times it was in the form of a memoir,” Costelloe noted.
“But I didn’t find it that interesting. I had to try to find the right voice for the story.”
He points out that the book’s plot is built on situations that are true to the volatility, and surrealistic atmosphere of Algeria at that time – but that didn’t all happen to one group of people.
He, like his character Dave, had his hair shorn and wore a French uniform as an extra in a propaganda movie made by an Algerian director, depicting the country under French rule.
But one character is directly inspired by a real person truth, he admits – the American, Sue, who is modelled on his late wife, Irene – also American, and who he met while living and working in Algeria.
Part of his desire to put those times in perspective was inspired by Irene – they were married for 40 years – who passed from cancer just before the COVID lockdown of 2020.
The lockdown itself provided the impetus to devote himself to writing, he noted – including taking courses at Future Learn and Vancouver Community College in poetry, prose and film writing.
He’s also a member of Vancouver-based writers’ group whose creative criticism he credits with sharpening and streamlining his prose, particularly in the opening chapters.
“It was very helpful. One of the things that got cut was my original opening – they helped me see there was too much telling and not enough action,” he said.
Costelloe clearly has had many adventures in his life to draw on for future books – he also worked as a teacher in Saudi Arabia and in Colombia, and actually hitchhiked from there to Vancouver to reconnect with his brother who emigrated here in the early `80s.
But his current project is a young adult thriller, Starship Malaysia, set in 1982, he said.
“It’s a genre that’s really exploded in the last few years,” he added. “A lot of people of all ages read them.”
Drawn Into Danger is available online in both printed and e-editions at amazon.ca