A Simple Plan by Scott B. Smith Book Review

Looking back on it now, after all that’s happened, it seems insane with what little fear I picked this path.

Once one accepts the bizarre premise of Smith’s astonishingly adept, ingeniously plotted debut thriller, the book fulfills every expectation of a novel of suspense, leading the reader on a wild exploration of the banality of evil. It’s very similar to The Basis Of Morality by Stephen King in a way that it explores a “what-if” scenario which puts the concept of good and evil into perspective.

When Hank Mitchell, his obese, feckless brother Jacob and Jacob’s smarmy friend Lou accidentally find a wrecked small plane and its dead pilot in the woods near their small Ohio town, they decide not to tell the authorities about the $4.4 million stuffed into a duffel bag.

Instead, they agree to hide the money and later divide it among themselves.

And it was like magic, too, like a gift from the gods, the ease with which a solution came to me, a simple plan, a way to keep the money without fear of getting caught.

The ‘simple plan’ sets in motion a spiral of blackmail, betrayal and multiple murder which Smith manipulates with consummate skill, increasing the tension exponentially with plot twists that are inevitable and unpredictable at the same time. In choosing to make his protagonist an ordinary middle-class man – Hank is an accountant in a feed and grain store – Smith demonstrates the eerie ease with which the mundane can descend to the unthinkable.

Hank commits the first murder to protect his brother and their secret; he eerily rationalizes the ensuing coldblooded deeds while remaining outwardly normal, hardly an obvious psychopath. Smith’s imagination never palls; the writing peaks in a gory liquor store scene that’s worthy of comparison to Stephen King at his best.

I was doomed now, trapped, that the rest of my life would pivot somehow off this single act, that in trying to save Jacob, I’d damned us both.

This book has been adapted into a movie.

The story

Two brothers and their friend stumble upon the wreckage of a plane–the pilot is dead and his duffle bag contains four million dollars in cash. In order to hide, keep, and share the fortune, these ordinary men all agree to a simple plan. Wait until spring and once the snow disappears, the chances of the plane being found are going to increase. If nobody steps forward to claim the money, it’s theirs to do as they please. The issue stems from the quality of the people involved.
At first, I was against what Hank did thinking that he should have been honourable and turned the money in the second the sheriff approached their stopped car. But then – as he asks the same question to his wife later again that evening he makes a point. In theory we’re all honourable until we have a load of cash at the bottom of our feet. The physicality of the money makes it near impossible to say no to the temptation of a better future.

How $20mil looks like

His wife, pregnant at the time with their second child, sees the money as an opportunity to travel the world and explore. Hank himself sees his future in very rosy colours too – maybe he can move with his family, buy a new car maybe and many other things that people desire.
His brother, Jacob, sees the money as means of buying back the land that used to belong to their parent’s farm and take on farming. Lou – he is already in debt and accumulates more gambling debt with the idea that the money would be his. And this is where the issues start appearing. Both Jacob and Lou can’t wait for spring, they want the money NOW and every attempt that Hank makes in order to delay them does not end well.

Jacob and Lou already had a very close relationship, had inside jokes with one-another, have been friends for much longer than he and Hank were. From Jacob’s perspective, Hank is less than his friend. And this is where Hank steps up his game and tries to form an alliance with his brother against Lou. At the same time, Lou finds Hank and Jacob’s dirty secret (a murder made in despair) and is holding that up over their heads in a blackmail attempt to get to the money faster.

Things spiral out of control as greed and impatience drive Lou to try to break into Hank’s house and then demand the money as he had accrued debts that were due soon. Hank and Jacob decide to get Lou dead drunk and to “confess” as a game to the murder that the two of them perpetrated and use the out-of-context audio as leverage. Lou gets mad and pulls out the gun. Jacob shoots Lou and then Hank shoots Lou’s wife. He then goes across the road to bring in a friend of theirs – whom Hank proceeds to shoot and drag him upstairs. Innocent after innocent get killed in the thrilling conclusion of “Simple Plan”, ending with Hank deeming his own brother, Jacob, too much of a risk.
He kills his own brother.

I was expecting the police to be a bit better at this – they buy Hank’s shaky story of Lou getting angry after catching his wife with their friend and shooting them both before Jacob killing him in self-defense. I mean there must have been gun-poweder residue on Hank’s coat.
There might have been footsteps marks and fingerprints in the house and in the bedroom and also in their friend’s trailer.
But in a small town, the police is not always as suspicious as they are in big cities.

Hank gets away with murder. Several murders. Fratricide.

I thought the book would have been done with the two of them living together knowing the real cost of the $4.4 million but the story continues. FBI comes into town asking for the airplane. The money was ransom money for a kidnapping gone wrong. There’s blood on it (figuratively).
Hank manages to avoid getting killed / caught again and in the end he finds out that the bills are marked (traced). Not all of them but about 5000 of them, making the money worthless. As soon as they spend anything, the bank will see the bill on a “most-wanted” list and then trace it back to them – getting them caught, arrested for murder and jailed.

The last twist comes as Hank’s wife, in celebration of getting rid of the FBI agent and not really knowing that the money was traced – she spends $100 of the money on champagne. Stupidest move ever – but one that Hank has to fix by doing two more brutal murders – with a machete.
With each kill, he becomes more and more desensitized to murder and even his overly-rational process cannot withstand the harsh reality of truth as he tries and fails to explain to his last victim why she had to die.

Going back home, he burns the money, brick by brick and then continues to spend his life in mediocrity along with his wife.

Best bits:

  • It’s one of the few books I’ve read where the bad guy gets away with murder
  • His heavily pregnant wife – an idyllic picture in itself – is as driven and as determined as he is to keep the money with every cost. Including murder. She’s nothing but nurturing to the kids but on the side, she pushes her husband and is frequently seen touching the money or taking it out or counting it.
  • Hank – even though he was the logical choice for the man driven by circumstances and a tragic hero – is actually the villain of this story. Had he made a different choice in the beginning, he would not have gone down the path to perdition. He is not evil but calculated in his murders. Every one of them is necessary and never does he really consider (like his brother Jacob does) that maybe a man’s life is worth more than some money found in the woods.
  • Hank is also a bit of a weirdo. He often comments on the large size of his brother, Jacob, and in his interactions with his pregnant wife he seems to be repulsed by the idea of pregnancy / childbearing, thinking it unnatural – like a parasite draining off the life force. He shows his moral decrepitude in small bursts at first, but as the time goes, he is totally the baddie!
  • The fact that the two of them stay together in misery after burning the money is a clear indicator of not “Love conquers all” but of “Each other’s prison guard”

Worst bits:

  • Are you really telling me that that plane went down and it wasn’t detected anywhere?
  • How come the police didn’t query Hank more about how his brother died? His story was very weak!
  • I’m sure that most stores have security cameras to prevent thieves and the last two murders should have been captured on cam! I was rooting for the police by the time Hank took of his ski mask to breathe a bit thinking – This is how he gets caught! Plus he left boot-marks in the blood spilled. There’s no way he could have wiped off all traces from that brutal murder – especially after the victim didn’t die from the start and took several hacks to die.
  • I’m pretty sure both Hank and his wife killed their first-born because he cried so much (poor kid was probably aware of the undercurrents going on in the household)
  • How come Hank’s wife didn’t squirrel away any of the money? She looked determined to keep it even if some of the bills were traceable. They should have watched Breaking Bad 🙂

All in all a great read! 5/5

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