A Simple Plan by Scott Smith (1993) — I’ll Try Not to Gush

Since I started reading a lot again a couple of years ago, I’ve read some pretty good books. Even a few really good books. But I hadn’t read one that really floored me, leaving me in awe of what a brilliant piece of work it was. Until now.

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A Simple Plan tells the story of three men in rural Ohio who find a plane with $4.4 million (along with a dead pilot) at a crash site  in a snow-covered nature preserve: there’s Hank, the mild-mannered accountant whose first instinct is to give the money back; Jacob, Hank’s older, alcoholic, loser brother; and Lou, Jacob’s best friend who also just happens to be up to his armpits in debt and is the first one to suggest that they should split the money.

Hank (being the de facto smart one in the group) decides that he will sit on the money for six months while they wait for the snow to melt and the plane to be discovered, then watch the news for reports of the missing money. If, after the six months is up, no one seems to be looking for the loot, they split it up three ways and all become instant millionaires.

See? Simple.

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Needless to say, it doesn’t take long for the shit to hit the fan and their simple plan to go out the window. In my head while I was reading, I wondered what the worst case scenario was—how bad things could possibly get. Everything I imagined as the worst possible outcome had already happened by the halfway mark. That left me engrossed in the book in a way I haven’t been since I was a kid, reading Stephen King books late at night on my bed. At one point near the end, I found myself on a lunch break at work reading while I walked to the restroom. I just could not put this book down.

One thing that bugs me about some books is that they strike me as too “writery.” There’s a term for it; it’s called “purple prose”—when an author is overly descriptive and wordy. Scott Smith is the opposite. Like his other novel, the similarly excellent 2006 horror story The Ruins, his writing is very straight forward in a way that never gets bogged down with unnecessary description. And since A Simple Plan is written in the first person, it really felt like the protagonist was sitting there talking directly to you, telling you the story.

Part of the brilliance of the story is the way things seem to unfold organically, gradually getting worse and worse, and the characters reacting accordingly then rationalizing their actions. Hank—and Hank’s pregnant wife—become masters at rationalizing the things they’ve done. It makes you wonder how far normal people can be pushed under extreme circumstances.

Of course, it should go without saying this book is not for everyone. There is A LOT of violence, sometimes quite graphic, and if that’s not your cup of tea you probably won’t like it. In some ways it reminded me of the films Fargo or Very Bad Things, albeit with a much more serious tone.

For me, though, it was a brilliantly told story with an ending that, while not exactly a ‘twist’ ending, you don’t see coming. Once you read it, however, you wonder if any other ending could fit so perfectly. It’s a gut-wrenching conclusion to a story that might make you second guess if you’d ever be tempted enough to think about keeping found money.

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