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BOOK REVIEW / Avenge this foul and almost natural murder: 'A Simple Plan' - Scott Smith: Doubleday, 9.99 pounds

JUST suppose, for the sake of argument, that you found a crashed plane in the middle of nowhere containing nothing but a dead pilot and dollars 4.4m in used dollars 100 bills. Would you at least entertain the possibility of hanging on to the money? Sure you would. You might conclude that keeping the cash was bound to lead to trouble sooner or later from some quarter or other, because whoever had lost the dollars 4.4m was going to miss it very badly indeed. But maybe . . . You could always give it back, after all.

This is the simple plan arrived at by Hank Mitchell, his brother Jacob and Jacob's friend Lou when they come across the plane. These are men whose lives are going nowhere. Hank, who tells the story - makes the confession, if you like - is an accountant at an agricultural store in deepest Ohio. Jacob, his brother, is a fat, unhappy and unemployable man with a secret dream of buying back the family farm. And his friend Lou is the sort of boozy trailer-park psychopath you'd be crazy to let in on a plan that calls for the participants to keep their mouths shut.

But Hank has no choice. He is what passes for a natural leader in this company, being better educated in the ways of money. But the friends soon start bickering about what to do. And so the killing begins.

Smith has chosen his epigraph, from Mary Wollstonecraft, cunningly: 'No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.' These men are not evil - they are just sucked towards evil by the awesome possibilities of what they have stumbled upon. Hank in particular, whom we know best because he speaks to us, is really doing it for his wife Sarah and their child; he finds it easy enough to convince himself that the end, rescuing them from their humdrum existence, more than justifies the means. Indeed it is Sarah who turns out to have the most steel. As the bodies pile up (eight or nine, I lost count), she is the Lady Macbeth who bolsters Hank's resolve or comes up with new justifications for what he is doing. Not that Hank needs that much bolstering; one of the most chilling things about A Simple Plan is the unfussed way in which Hank does whatever the logic of the situation demands.

Scott Smith has hit the sort of first novelist's jackpot you wouldn't even dare dream of - huge advances all over the world, huge film rights (I foresee Harrison Ford in nerdy glasses), and according to the jacket he's gone straight from Columbia to full- time writing without any of the usual dead-end jobs in between. He's not even 30 yet - no wonder he looks pleased with himself.

By and large, A Simple Plan is gripping stuff. We watch the carnage with palsied fascination, recognising the inevitability of it all. But, like a lot of writers who have a great idea, Smith suddenly seems not to know how to finish: the payoff is disappointing.

All crime novels are, to a certain extent, morality tales, but this one is more so than most. There's no mystery - we know who's doing the killing, and we're pretty sure that some hefty twist of fate is going to whisk that dollars 4.4m out of Hank's reach. In a curious way the moral issue is not so much murder, or even theft; despite Hank's rather unconvincing conclusion that he's 'human, exactly like everyone else', most of us would stop short of mass murder in his situation. It all makes more sense when seen as a matter of truth - each violent death is a new lie, told to prevent previous lies from being found out. And we are all familiar with that situation.