Books: A Simple Plan by Scott Smith

Scott Smith has only published a couple of novels in his writing career, but luckily for him (and us), they’re both fantastic. I read and reviewed his 2006 novel The Ruins not too long ago (he also wrote the screenplay for the solid 2008 film adaptation), but I had never read his debut, the 1993 noir thriller A Simple Plan (though I saw the 1998 film adaptation, directed by Sam Raimi, long enough ago that I didn’t remember exactly what happened in it).

After seeing overwhelmingly rapturous reviews of A Simple Plan from some of my more trusted YouTube book reviewers, I decided to finally give the novel a spin, and holy fuck, if this thing isn’t one of the most nail-biting and relentlessly grim things I’ve ever read, then I don’t know what the fuck anything even is anymore. It’s really that good. I haven’t been this compelled to finish a book since I can’t really remember when.

Now, if you’ve seen the film—which boasts an amazing cast including Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, and Bridget Fonda—know that it sticks pretty closely to the plot of the novel until the end, when it introduces a bit of variation. It’s not a massive difference, but it was nice that Scott Smith changed up the events and motivations a tad for the screenplay, just so people who read the book got a bit of a surprise and not just a slavish retelling. The film also moves the action from Ohio, as it was in the book, to Minnesota, but it doesn’t seem to make much difference to the story.

The tale is told from the perspective of Hank Mitchell, a thirty-something accountant. He has a wife named Sarah, who is a librarian and is also eight months pregnant. The couple aren’t wealthy, but they both have college degrees and stable jobs, a good handle on their finances, and a starter home in a decent suburb. They sort of ended up back in this small town, where Hank was from, due to unforeseen circumstances, but they have every confidence that they’ll be able to move up to something bigger and better someday.

Hank has an older brother named Jacob, who is pretty much the opposite. Obese, unkempt, and unemployed, Jacob isn’t stupid, but doesn’t seem to have much ambition beyond drinking and spending time with his kinda lowlife friend Lou. Hank and Jacob aren’t exactly estranged, but they don’t have much in common and very rarely talk.

Two years prior to the events of the book, Hank and Jacob’s parents were killed in a horrific car crash that Hank had always thought was an accident, but learns later might have been suicide, brought on by the fact that the parents were in a great deal of debt and were about to lose their farm. Even though Hank was never all that close with his parents, as he’d wanted to get away from the small-town farm life as quickly as possible, he did vow to uphold a curious condition in his father’s will: that both Hank and Jacob together visit the parents’ graves once a year.

At the beginning of the book, it’s New Year’s Eve, and Hank and Jacob are on their way to discharge this annual obligation. Lou is also with them, as they’re going to drop him off on their way to the cemetery. Also along for the ride is Mary Beth, Jacob’s (male) dog, who ends up being the first link in the chain of steadily escalating chaos that will eventually doom the brothers and many, many other people associated with them.

Along a snowy road near a nature preserve, a fox suddenly darts in front of the truck, causing the driver to hit the brakes hard. Mary Beth jumps out of the truck and pursues the fox into the preserve, at which point the three men are obligated to go after the dog.

There, lying in the snow, they find the wreckage of a small airplane. After poking around inside, Hank finds not only a dead pilot whose eyes have been pecked out by crows, but also a duffel bag containing $4.4 million.

At first, the responsible Hank insists they have to do the right thing and turn the money in to the authorities. Someone must be looking for it, he reasons, and it would be too dangerous to keep. Jacob and Lou, though, neither of whom have jobs and also have some significant debts, are all in favor of keeping the money. Hank tries to stand his ground, but he feels his conviction wavering at the thought of all that dough, and it doesn’t take too much argument before he agrees to keep the cash. However, he has a few conditions that he hopes will ensure that they don’t get caught for stealing whoever’s money this is.

First, he tells Jacob and Lou, he’s going to hang onto the money himself. He’s the most stable, he says, and points out (correctly) that Jacob and Lou are both drunks and are way more desperate for money than he is, meaning they’re liable to do something foolish. Hank says he’ll hide it for the time being. He also demands that they tell absolutely no one about the cash; Jacob is single and has no one to tell, but Lou has a girlfriend named Nancy. Hank promises that he won’t even tell his own wife Sarah about it.

Second, no one is to touch or spend a single dime of the cash for six months, or at least until after the spring thaw when the plane is inevitably found. If the plane is found and no one seems to be looking for the money, then they can presume it’s safe and can divide it up then.

Third, once the money is divided up, everyone has to quietly and separately leave town and not tell anyone where they’re going. It’s a simple plan, for sure, and if everyone had adhered to the rules, then maybe nothing approaching the epic clusterfuck that is about to ensue would have happened.

Unfortunately, though, humans are imperfect creatures, and in the case of the characters in this book, they are also greedy, reckless, careless, stupid, and, in the end, downright evil. Turns out that four million bucks is quite sufficient to transform even the most normal of people into complete psychopaths, and boy howdy, does that happen here in spades.

The thing about it, though, is that because of Scott Smith’s gripping, visceral prose and tightly controlled pacing, every stage of the descent into utter madness is completely believable, bordering on inevitable. And because everything is told from the first-person perspective of Hank, a regular family man no different from you or me, the tale grows more and more horrifying as it goes on, because the guy is able to justify pretty much every fresh atrocity by portraying himself as a victim of circumstances taking away his freedom of action.

In a way, too, the reader almost becomes complicit in the ratcheting savagery, because up to a point, you’re low-key rooting for Hank to do whatever he needs to do in order to keep the money. That’s the genius of A Simple Plan; even though you, as the reader, might say you’d make different choices than what the characters here do that led them down this path of utter ruin, you’ve never found a plane with $4.4 million just lying around in the snow either, I’d presume, so who’s to know how you (or I) would or wouldn’t react? The character of Hank is essentially a brilliantly realized study in Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil,” a step-by-step progression of how a regular joe can end up becoming a monster, excusing his atrocious actions as beyond his control all the while. It’s a stunningly bleak piece of work, but all the more affecting for that.

If you’re into really grim thrillers that have you glued to the edge of your seat the entire time and take a deep psychological dive into the terrifying (yet completely plausible) plunge from normalcy to depravity, then you owe it to yourself to read this book. It’s masterclass in suspense and it’s wildly entertaining, even while being cruel and unyielding as fuck. Easily one of the top five thrillers I’ve ever read.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s