Mark Harris
August 27, 1993 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Let’s not waste a moment before getting to the plot of A Simple Plan, since it slices right into the first pages of Scott Smith’s spectacular thriller as sharply and savagely as the edge of a broken bone: Hank Mitchell, a 30-year-old accountant at a rural Ohio feedstore, walks into the wintry woods one Dec. 31 and finds $4 million in the wreckage of a small airplane. The only witnesses to his windfall are his brother Jacob, an unemployable, crumb-chinned slob, and Lou, Jacob’s grubby, grabby partner in decay. Also looking on, in a manner of speaking, is the plane’s dead pilot, whose eyes have been torn out by crows, leaving his face ”beseeching, mournfully so, like a raccoon’s.” Hank, the intelligent one and our narrator, agrees to share the wealth with Jacob and Lou if they’ll wait until the following summer. If the plane is discovered before then and the bills are found to be marked or traceable, he’ll burn the cash.

A simple plan? yes. And then again, no. As Smith’s coiled-rattlesnake story line spirals further, it becomes clear and inevitable that everything will go wrong, that greed, weakness, ineptitude and insanity will conspire to force someone to win, and someone — actually, several someones — to lose. To say another word would be to spoil the year’s finest literary shivers, every one of which A Simple Plan earns. As Hank’s pregnant wife, Sarah, who is both loyal helpmate and Lady Macbeth in maternity togs, tells him, ”People don’t get away with things like this….We’re just normal people, Hank. We aren’t sneaky, we aren’t smart.” But Hank is determined — and willing to do a great deal to taste, just once, a millionaire’s existence. And, as with the terrifying protagonist of Jim Thompson’s classic noir novel Pop. 1280, the more his behavior degenerates, the more logical his rationales sound.

A Simple Plan has already been sold to Hollywood, and it’s no stretch to imagine The Firm‘s Tom Cruise and Jeanne Tripplehorn reuniting to inhabit a fable about the limits of yuppie ambition that’s 10 shades blacker and several corpses grimmer than John Grisham’s. But the cinematic readiness of A Simple Plan, which certainly has a movie-friendly share of action sequences and don’t-go-in-the-house moments, shouldn’t obscure its status as a beautifully controlled piece of writing, all the more impressive for being the debut of its 27-year-old author.

In his first novel, Smith is not after anything so clean-cut as charting the moral collapse of an average man faced with temptation (what you would do in his shoes becomes a moot point pretty quickly). Instead, Smith plays a more tantalizing game, letting the reader decide whether Hank Michell — is it an accident he shares his all-American name with Dennis the Menace’s upstanding Midwestern dad? — is a good fellow gone wrong or a psychotic just waiting for a chance to show his true colors. I made up my mind after page 37, then changed it, then changed back. And that, I think, is what Smith wants. His painstaking tone of moral neutrality is animated neither by greed-is-good anti-platitudes. (The novel’s least convincing passages, and there aren’t many, come during Hank’s deadpan moments of self-analysis, though the hollow ring of those interludes may be intentional.)

Smith plants some seedlings to suggest that the financial and emotional straits of Hank’s family and the dead-end nature of his recession-scorched hometown make him an ordinary Everyguy, but they don’t really sprout. Most readers, rather than rooting for or against him, will just watch with appalled fascination and maybe even glee as the pieces of his perfectly constructed puzzle spontaneously wrench themselves apart and fly toward chaos. For as scary and suspenseful as it is, A Simple Plan ends up as one of the best sick jokes ever told, its stone face cracking into a death’s-head rictus at the most unexpected moments. The movie should be terrific, but do yourself a favor: Read this book. A

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