Craig Holden's compact, dark novels are seductive and unnerving. They tend to be categorized as mysteries, even though what is most mysterious for those reading them is simply which of the characters will walk away unscathed by their own asocial actions. Holden's books could also be mistaken as Business Class Lit--John Grisham, et al.--but that sparseness in prose and fleetness of plot comes more from the discipline, rather than the poverty, of imagination.
Matala carries on this tradition. In Rome, a bored recent high-school grad, Darcy Arlen, strays from a laboriously planned package tour of Europe. Standing on a bridge, she meets a charming, underfed fellow young American named Will. Their conversation sparks a mutual attraction, and he invites her to a party that night. Will turns out to be a con artist, living globally scam-to-scam with Justine, a ballsy woman nearly 20 years his senior. As Will and Darcy flirt at the party, Justine slips GHB into Darcy's drink. When Darcy awakes the next morning, with Will and Justine in the next room, she finds her cash stolen and tour group long departed.
She doesn't seem to mind, though. In fact, Darcy is a hobbyist con artist herself. Maybe even a good one--later, she counsels Will and Justine on the flaws in their execution. The three form an alliance to carry a mysterious package to Crete, though each never stops scheming to get over on the other two. The game is further complicated by a detective hired by Darcy's wealthy father to bring her home. The dick warns her by phone that her new friends are more dangerous than she realizes.
Chapters alternate in the first-person voice of either Will, Darcy, or Justine. This pan-perspective does little to shed light on the outcome, though. Even omnipresence wouldn't help, given how the malicious intentions of each mash into a chain of events beyond anyone's control. Holden dangles only subtle indicators as to the psychological readiness of the characters: Who thinks the quickest? Who has the most to lose? Who is most naive? Who is hampered from world-weariness?
Matala isn't Holden's best book. The danger he threatens Darcy with ultimately turns out to be a bit contrived, and the book's twists don't jolt with the same delicious severity that they did in his previous effort, 2005's stunning The Narcissist's Daughter. But it's still a swift ride worth taking for the unknown.