The tension begins with the title and ends when you close the book. But Laurie R. King’s Lockdown is every bit as much of a character study as it is a thrilling novel of suspense. It reads like lightning but lingers like memories of good times spent with good friends, those you will make when you spend Career Day at Guadalupe Middle School. Lockdown is the perfect example of character-driven suspense, and a smart vision of 21st century suburban sprawl where diverse threads come together whether they want to or not.
We begin before the dawn, as Principal Linda McDonald lies awake, worrying about the logistics for the big day to come at her middle school in San Felipe, a central California coast town that offers the full range of American income, from the poorest farm workers’ daughter to the odd Internet millionaire’s son.
King keeps the chapters and introductions to the characters short even as she expertly sets them up and apart from one another. We meet Brendan, the richish kid playing a first-person-shooter video game, Mina, the daughter of nervous Iranian émigrés, Olivia, the cop, Tio, the janitor, and more. Happily King quickly makes it easy for us to figure out who is who, as events move quickly towards an ending that at least one of them plans to be quite unhappy.
While some of the characters have more back-story than others, forward momentum is the order of the day, and that momentum unfolds in ordinary, small moments that are drawn with care. Even characters that we suspect find our sympathy, which puts readers in a very unusual and interesting situation. Lockdown is something of an apotheosis of sympathy for the devil, who after all, saw himself as the hero of his own adventure. Chances are that readers will not be thinking too much about the abstractions that lend the narrative strength though, and not just because the suspense factor is so expertly ratcheted through the roof. It turns out, we like the people who are in the fray, and that matters, a lot. Yes, there are call-outs to King’s other works and characters that will make it especially fun for her regular readers.
In terms of balancing the suspense, which is to say keeping readers focused, but not too focused on the end, Lockdown is in a class by itself. Between the short chapters and her own keen understanding of the interplay between character and action, Lockdown reads at the perfect pace. The word that comes to mind is organic, woven, with each word and action giving birth to those that follow. But more importantly, and surprisingly, Lockdown is a novel that readers will remember as much for the setting as the suspense. Guadalupe Middle School is a place readers will want to return to. You’ll want to linger in the hallways after the fray. You’ll want to hang out as the characters deal with the small events of everyday life. There is an after, and you will find yourself happy with whatever it has to offer.
I will admit to being lucky enough to have Laurie join me at the home studio to talk about her book. My goal, as ever, is to give her potential readers enough to send them to the bookstore, without having told them so much as to make such a trip superfluous. In a variety of alternate timelines, King is an award-winning teacher, and those skills serve her well in this timeline as we spoke about Lockdown. To my mind, this is one of her best novels. Readers can get a head start of the back-story of the novel by following this link to the MP3 audio file, or wait until the school lunch hour and listen below.