A psychological thriller should be a fun and crazy rollercoaster ride. It should take you by surprise, jostle you around a bit, and make you let out a scream or a gasp or two before you are safely back at the start of the ride and ready for some cotton candy and a Slushie. In spite of all the excitement, it should have a pretty predictable route with a terrifying incline and a stomach-turning drop or two, and maybe even a loop-de-loop for good measure. It will likely be similar to the last rollercoaster ride you’ve taken, but should be unique enough that you are surprised and your adrenalin pumps hardcore, like a timpani at the crescendo of a classical orchestra piece before it reaches its conclusion. You should be giggling with relief that it’s over and happy you took the ride to prove you are badass enough to survive it.
Somewhat outside the rollercoaster metaphor, it should also have a body count and a goodly amount of what-the-fuck moments to make your skin crawl. After you’ve finished a good psychological thriller, you should be happy you took the ride and still buzzed from the harrowing journey. You should be spent.
Local author Sal Nudo has written such a book, entitled The Millionaire’s Cross, and he is a very competent writer. The story involves two estranged brothers meeting for a yearly pilgrimage to the site of a family tragedy, only to be sidetracked by an intriguingly illegal proposition: a chance encounter with a wealthy stranger who offers them a shit-ton of cash for one little illegal and immoral act. The lust for that cash and the fantasy of the freedom it would provide is what makes everything go horribly wrong and results in the aforementioned body count and understandable regret for the sole survivor. Like any good film noir, the characters herein are flawed and should be downright morally bankrupt to justify their reprehensible actions.
Nudo has a great sense of character and a good sense of plot. His narrator and protagonist, Alex, is a well-drawn average mensch with a wife, a mundane job, and even more mundane dreams for the future, who is confronted with the possibility of more. His brother Trevor (T-Rev, an awesome-sauce nickname referenced at the start of the book and not used nearly enough throughout) is a sweet gay kid without a life plan who drifts into jobs and boyfriends with equal carelessness and is always surprised at the resulting clusterfuck that is his life. His boyfriend Chad is also a very recognizable character, with a dash of silly party boy and two dashes of annoying, self-absorbed twit thrown in for good measure. Even Alex’s wife Emily is a believably clueless missus who is too busy picking potential baby clothes and charting her ovulation cycle to realize her hubby may be going bat-shit-crazy in the next room. They are all skillfully drawn characters who feel real and relatable, ones that we’ve seen and hung out with before. They are flawed and well rounded, everything a good author creates when he sets up the canvas of his storytelling mural.
The plot of a psychological thriller should be a bit cookie-cutter, in my opinion, with a surprise or two to spice up the mix and leave you guessing. Nudo accomplishes this admirably as well, with a narrator who is characterized by his fellow characters as both an example of “blandness” and a bit “boring,” although he proves to be anything but as the story’s carnage ensues.
Another bit of fun for us readers is that this is a local story with landmarks thrown in that we have traveled through on a daily basis. It’s a good time reading where Alex and company travel in the C-U area and envisioning our little hamlet littered a-body-here-and-there along the way. I don’t want to give too much away because there are some surprises, but suffice it to say that, in Nudo’s universe, if you get an offer of untold wealth for one little act of mayhem, it’s never without a hefty price tag and a bit of regret.
While Nudo’s work has the potential to be a very fun read, and his skills are clearly evident throughout, The Millionaire’s Cross is not a complete success. His descriptive devices are erratic, with some metaphors (like the titular cross) being very memorable and others being overused or not fully realized. This smoothes out within the first few chapters, though, and becomes some really solid prose. Nudo should be congratulated for his narrative voice as a whole.
Another issue is the author’s choice of genre, and the plot’s sporadic adherence to the traditions of said genre. The novel seems torn between telling the tale of Alex’s journey through life as a “good guy” with goals as bland as the other characters note they are, and the over-the-top psychological thriller aspects of where the promise of wealth takes Alex and company…which is honestly a lot of fun. In Nudo’s novel, the thriller aspects end far too early, and we are left with Alex trying to convince us he’s a nice guy after he’s spent the best portion of the novel being a real dick. A choice needs to be made, and Nudo’s love of Alex’s stereotypical domesticity blunts the impact of his novel as a whole. As stated earlier, the denouement of a psychological thriller should leave us gasping; and, while The Millionaire’s Cross does make us gasp a time or two, it drags on a bit too much after those gasps have subsided, and the result is a story that drags towards the end when it should just knee us in the balls and say goodnight already.
I also kept wanting a bit more psychological explanation in the work, with some clue as to what motivates the crazier actions of our narrator to be more expressly stated. Plus, the carnage is a bit muted for a real thrill ride. Characters are conveniently and bloodlessly dispatched and the protagonist barely has his clothing rumpled from the fray. By comparison, an author like Christopher Rice would have taken us on a journey with operatic violence and gore to spare, and while Rice’s works are flawed in the opposite extreme, I wanted Nudo’s novel to possess a bit of the cinematic temerity that Rice infuses his thrillers with.
When all is said and done, a talented author makes you want more from them, and The Millionaire’s Cross makes you realize the skills that Sal Nudo possesses and makes you look forward to the potential of his future works, after he’s digested the lessons he’s learned from writing this one. His skills with character development and the creation of an interesting plot are evident throughout the piece, and the failing I’ve noted only make me wonder what he will give us in the future. I’m really glad I read this book and look forward to seeing a more seasoned offering from Nudo (hopefully also set in our own backyard) sometime in the near future.
Author photo by Sam Logan.