Fiction is typically about personal relationships but Mark Costello's Big If focuses primarily on people at work. The characters are mostly connected by Vi Asplund, a secret service agent tasked with protecting the vice-president during an election campaign. We meet her fellow agents, including her boss Gretchen, veteran agent Tashmo and Felker, who devised 'the dome', a plan for protecting VIPs that tries to account for every possible outcome. [amtap book:isbn=1843542188]
Thematically, Costello is interested in the things that people give their lives to. In the case of Asplund and her colleagues, they have to be prepared to literally give their lives, if it comes to that, to protect someone they may not even like. Peta, Vi's sister-in-law, also gives her life to people she doesn't like, as an estate agent charged with finding houses for the spoiled and demanding wives of millionaires. Meanwhile Jens, Vi's brother and Peta's husband, is beginning to wonder whether he has given his life to the wrong thing. All of this, of course, has an effect on personal relationships. Early in the novel Vi's father dies. Jens, a computer programmer who designs monsters for an online video game called Big If, is left tormented by the idea that his father disapproved of his job and that insecurity begins to affect his work and his relationship with his wife.
The other strong theme is control and the ability to anticipate threats. This is clearly the primary concern for the secret service agents but it's also the case for Jens, whose job involves constructing a world and, literally, creating the monsters that inhabit it. Vi, then, has devoted her life to thwarting threats, while Jens has devoted his life to creating them.
There isn't much plot but what there is centres on Felker, who disappears suddenly during a chaotic operation. Since he knows everything about The Dome, the Secret Service is concerned about the threat he poses if he has cracked under the pressure. What has caused Felker's disappearance? Has he finally realised what his devotion to work has done to his relationship with his wife or is it just that spending a lifetime attempting to anticipate everything that could possibly go wrong is more than any mind can take?
Costello attempts a couple of daring things with the structure of this novel, both of which ultimately fail. Firstly, he tries to replicate the experience of a Secret Service agent scanning the crowd. Many of the characters in Big If are pulled into sharp focus for only a chapter before slipping back into the mass. It's an interesting idea but unsatisfying in practice. Secondly, Costello tries to generate an atmosphere of tension in which nothing much happens. Again, it's an attempt to use the structure of the novel to reflect the experience of life as Secret Service agent. Unfortunately, it doesn't help the novel, which falls halfway between being a thriller and a piece of literary fiction.