With tactics that go far beyond the ordinary, Vanessa “Michael” Munroe has earned her reputation as the best in the business of finding information. The androgynous heroine of Taylor Stevens’s debut thriller, The Informationist, has an uncanny gift for languages (she speaks twenty-two), exotic cultures, and calculated violence. “To hide, to hunt along the damp and dim of the rain-forest floor, was familiar, natural,” to Munroe, Stevens writes. “The musk of living things permeated the air; it mixed with the inner cauldron of rage and fed the urge to strike, to kill.”
Munroe also has a gift for finding a coherent pattern in seemingly unrelated bits of information: “Random thoughts rushed, collided and merged. It was no longer one puzzle; it was two—possibly three. She pulled in air, and with each deep breath, worked backward into a state of clear-headed focus, placing the new pieces of information against what she already had. There was a fit somewhere.”
These talents bring Munroe to the attention of Houston oil man Richard Burbank, who offers her $5 million to find his stepdaughter Emily, who disappeared in west-central Africa four years before. The money is a lure, but for Munroe the more powerful attraction is the chance to return to the verdant, dangerous land of her childhood. Once she accepts the assignment, finding Emily Burbank proves to be a more dangerous game than even Munroe’s favorite pastime of riding a motorcycle at 150 miles per hour.
The novel takes off fast and never stops. Through plot twists and spins, through the jungles and mean streets of Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, the demons of Munroe’s own tortured past emerge. One of them is Francisco Beyard, a sexy drug smuggler who proves that while Munroe can pass as a man when she needs to, she is very much a woman. (A fact which her unwanted bodyguard, Miles Bradford, also notes.) Once the last bit of information is locked into place and the trail of greed and betrayal is clear, it seems nothing will stop Munroe from extracting the last drop of her vengeance.
Stevens taps her own history to endow her heroine with street smarts, language skills, desperation, and the apocalyptic verses that reverberate in Munroe’s head. Stevens was born to missionary parents who were members of a migratory cult called the Children of God. By the time she was fourteen, she had lived in five states and seven foreign countries. The cult’s peripatetic lifestyle separated her from her parents for long stretches, and she spent the bulk of her childhood cleaning and preparing meals for the commune, and caring for other children in the cult. Cut off from all formal education at twelve, Stevens was sent out on the streets to beg.
Even then, her head was filled with stories, which she wrote and read to the other children. But when the adults in the cult found out, they locked her into solitary confinement and withheld her meals until she promised to stop writing. Perhaps more devastating, they destroyed the stories she had written. As The Informationist makes clear, however, she continued to view the world through the eyes of a novelist. In her twenties, after two years in Africa, Stevens, who was pregnant and nearly penniless, finally fled the cult with her husband and their young child. She didn’t begin to write again until, after a stint in Germany, she found herself in Texas and began to read voraciously.
Stevens’s intimate connection with the land and the people of West Africa is apparent in every line of The Informationist, from the seaside tourist resorts, to the slums, to the gaboon vipers in the jungle: “The road was dry, the atmosphere hazed by harmattan—fine Saharan dust blown from the north—which clouded the sky, cut visibility, and filled the horizon with the orange-tinted illusion of smog and pollution.” These words could only have been written by someone who had been to this place, seen this sky.
Vanessa Munroe—driven, demon-haunted, brilliant, and violent—calls to mind Stieg Larsson’s kick-ass heroine Lisbeth Salandar. Like Lisbeth, Munroe, too, will return in more novels: The Innocent, a sequel to The Informationist,will be published on December 27, and Stevens is currently writing a third volume in the series, which she says will take Munroe to South America and into Europe again.
Taylor Stephens will discuss The Informationist at the 2011 Southern Festival of Books, held October 14-16 in Nashville. All events are free and open to the public.