Saturday, February 02, 2008

Undercover Review

Reading reviews, especially shorter ones, can be a popcorn kind of experience. You sample a kernel or two, you find you're not quite full, so you pop a couple more, pretty soon you're licking butter and salt off the bottom of the bowl. The Bookgasm site is a good place to pop in every so often for a few quick hits, even when they're reviewing books you have no interest in. Maybe it's just me.

Anyway, at the end of last year one of the reviewers commented about a book that he called his favorite book of the year. I'd never heard of it or the author but that got my attention. When I checked into it, I found it's about a private investigator and is written in the first person. Since the book I just finished writing (but have not yet started editing) is about a cop and is written in the first person, I was curious as to how one of the best books of the year handled whatever kinds of things overlapped our two books.

I'm being kind of vague here because I thought I'd kind of do a general book review without naming the actual book. One of the reasons is that I really didn't care for the book; it didn't pass my test of wanting to read the next book by the same author, although that may not be cast in stone. Anyway, if someone really cared I'm sure they could ferret it out based on what I've said here.

As I said, the book is written in a first person perspective and right off the bat you can tell that the author is comfortable with his writing and has a strong voice (while his first novel, he is evidently an experienced screenwriter, etc.). I was impressed and almost intimidated by how smooth the narrative was early on. There was something that bothered me about the voice, and it's similar to why I don't care for Robert Crais' work, but it's hard to pin down when writing about it. You'd see what I mean if you read it, though.

It's kind of a cocky, smart-assed way of speaking that is intended just for the reader. If the character acted like that much of an ass when he spoke to the other characters, they'd probably have nothing to do with him. The phrase "pitching woo" was awkward enough when he used it in dialogue; it was really annoying when he used variations of it in the narrative. This is similar to Crais' Elvis Cole character who will comment, say, on his sometime partner in an aside intended only for the reader. Something like, "He doesn't say a lot, but when he does, he usually uses two words or less to make his point. Some talker, that guy. Can't shut him up." Doing this once may be okay, but not repeatedly. It's like the style takes the reader out of the story more than the writing.

A worse problem is that while the story is cruising along, the PI suddenly does something violent and unprovoked and unforeseen. Rather than provide an entertaining and unexpected plot point, the act was so wholly un-foreshadowed that it made it seem completely out of character. The author didn't set the stage for the actions of his own guy.

A more annoying problem was that when dealing with his best friend, as well as a cop he was supposedly on good terms with, the dialogue was all argument and altercation to the point that in any normal situation these relationships would no longer exist. Sure, a spot of anger or annoyance can reflect realism and add depth to an encounter, but not every time, all the time, and virtually unrelenting throughout the book.

Plot wise I had two major issues with the book. First, every time the PI needed something, he had the perfect associate from out of the past to call on. This happened at least four times throughout the book. He didn't have to figure out how to do anything to get over each hurdle, he merely called in a specialist he already just happened to know. Secondly, from the get go he speculated (while arguing unpleasantly with his "best" friend), what might be going on with the bad guys. Several times throughout the book the situation was revisited, always with the same unconfirmed speculation. There were no other options considered, no potential alternatives given, and guess what? They had the problem nailed.

So in the end, despite a glib and distinctive voice (which was borderline annoying for me), I couldn't wait for the book to be over. Any book written in the first person is ultimately about what the events mean to the narrator and how they affect him, but the disconnect between how he was portrayed through his narration and how he acted through the plot invalidate this theory. There was no mystery since the character's original supposition was the main plot thread through the book. The climax of the hero's rescue was glossed over and unbelievable as well, so what are you left with?

I guess a successful debut novel, but one I wouldn't recommend by an author I wouldn't read again. A less annoying voice, a narrative that left room for the character's actions later in the book, a plot with a spark of mystery or unknown, and a resolution with more credibility would have made all the difference. It sounds like a lot, but it ain't necessarily so. Ah, well. At least I got through it quickly. And somebody out there apparently likes it; the back cover blurbs say so.


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