The Chain has one of those plots that pulled me in, before I’d even finished reading the blurb. Picture this: a woman receives a phone call, advising her that her daughter has been kidnapped while waiting for the school bus. Terrifying, of course. She has to pay a ransom, but she also has to kidnap another person’s child, in order to secure her daughter’s safe return. Isn’t that twisted? I love a good ethical dilemma, as you know, so I ran out to pick up a copy of The Chain as soon as I could.

The Chain - Adrian McKinty - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Adrian McKinty has cited an interesting mish-mash of sources as inspiration for The Chain. It seems he combined stories of cartel kidnappings where family members could be substituted for the original victim, and the strange chain letter trend of his youth. Reading the book, it’s easy to see how these ideas melded together.

The main character, Rachel, is a divorcee whose cancer has recently returned. All of those troubles are shoved to the side, though, when her daughter Kylie is kidnapped. A terrified voice at the other end of an unknown number tells Rachel “you are not the first, and you will certainly not be the last,”. She is now part of The Chain: a series of parents and loved ones held together by their complicity, kidnapping someone in order to secure the return of their own.

The “chain” is more like a web, with the anonymous masterminds keeping tabs on their victims, using them where necessary to convince new victims to play along. The whole operation exploits the fierce love that parents have for their children, coupled with their fear of punishment should their involvement be revealed. None of them can dob anyone in without throwing themselves under the bus, too.

The Chain is told through short, punchy chapters. The story moves fast, and there are plenty of moments that will twist your stomach and hitch your breath. As well as the obvious trigger warning for violence against children, I should warn you about content relating to cancer, addiction, and dog death. Also, I don’t know if this constitutes a trigger warning, but there are a LOT of guns in this story. Like, everyone’s got a gun, everyone’s looking for a gun, everyone’s shooting a gun… it’s a surprisingly American idiosyncrasy for a thriller by an Irish writer.

It also has an unusual structure for a thriller – perhaps because McKinty originally conceived The Chain as a short story. There are two “parts”, and they read more like a first book and a sequel – smushed together into a single volume.

In the beginning, I felt like McKinty leaned a bit too hard into the people-put-everything-on-social-media aspect. Characters on the “chain” turn to Facebook and Instagram to stalk potential victims, and manage to turn up all kinds of information with very little effort. That might make sense if the story was set in the earliest days of social media, but these days I can’t think of anyone who would put their home address or phone number publicly visible on Facebook. It just stretched the bounds of believability.

McKinty also had a few hats-on-hats-on-hats, plot-wise. The Chain is such a compelling idea, I’m not sure he really needed the main character’s cancer diagnosis, or the side character’s heroin addiction, or the villain’s whole hippie commune back-story, or… Simplifying the story flies in the face of everything we’re told about how characters should be “complex”, but I think it would have made the hair-raising plot more impactful.

The story is definitely going to lend itself to a screen adaptation, though – I’m surprised we haven’t seen one already. Rights to The Chain were purchased by Universal Pictures back in 2020, and a director and writer have signed on, but no other news as yet. It definitely has the chops to make a Don’t Say A Word-type psychological thriller.

All told, The Chain is a high-octane thriller for fans of adrenaline-pump stories. As to the major question at its heart (“how far would you go to protect your loved ones?”), I still haven’t decided. In that respect, at least, this one will stick with me for a while.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Chain:

  • “Hopefully this crap will earn McKinty enough money so he can return to his earlier writing style.” – kb
  • “I read this in one day while my kids were playing on the beach. I literally couldn’t put it down. I had to know what happened next… now I have no idea where my kids are. Thanks a lot.” mrs. jones
  • “If you have seen the movie Taken with Liam Neeson you basically read this book. I imagine this book being as cheesy action film that is totally predictable. I’m taken back from the amazing reviews it has received. How much did they pay Stephen King to write that review?” – andrew ji
  • “”Rachel knows and Ginger knows. And Ginger knows that Rachel knows and Rachel knows that Ginger knows.” Really captivating stuff right there.” – Amanda E