Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Snowman

Jo Nesbo is a very good writer. His vivid descriptions, deft characterizations, and a prose that is clear and lucid even in translation all carry a reader along through a plot that seems to me overlong (512 pages in the paperback edition!), with too many twists and coincidences to really hold water.

The metaphor of the snowman is a brilliant focus for a police procedural in chilly Norway, and helps draw the reader along, too. However, while I understand why writers are drawn to serial killers -- it makes it easier really to impose a plot on an empty slate rather than have to deal with the triteness of conventional murders, it allows bodies to pile up -- it is for these very reasons something of a cop out.

My other problem with The Snowman and Nesbo is that I find his hero, Harry Hole, a bit hackneyed and ultimately somewhat tiresome. The loner detective, troubled by his demons, battling with alcoholism, unable to hold on to a woman has been a cliche for decades already. Hole (and was Nesbo really thinking about an English-speaking audience when he came up with this name?) brings a brooding Nordic twist to the formula, but it is still the same old formula. I can't imagine that I will want to go through another novel with poor old Harry.

But there's a lot to be said for good writing. And, as I've said before, I do like the Nordic venues. After visiting Oslo and Bergen, it's easy for me to picture the scenes in this novel, the distances in between. But for sheer adventure and novelty in northern climes, I found C.L. Withers Castle Cape more satisfying. His writing doesn't (yet) have the depth and texture of Nesbo's, but I found the Alaska thriller much harder to put down.

The Snowman was a bit exasperating in how elusive Hole found his villain. The character himself said you should focus on the least likely person as your suspect, and when I did that I got the right person much more quickly than Harry did. This is one of the reasons that I did put the book down fairly often and felt at times like I was plodding through.

One of the more amusing quirks of the Nesbo novels is his fascination with American presidents. Redbreast begins with Clinton's trip to Norway (who remembers that besides the Norwegians?). This book dates the action with radio reports of who is being elected or taking office in the White House. It is surely just a wry comment about how much attention the rest of the world pays to our politics, while we freely ignore whatever is going on elsewhere.

This book is better than Redbreast -- the plot is inherently more intriguing and the writing more sure-footed. In fact, I would imagine Nesbo has reached his peak. I would read another book of his if he moves away from Harry Hole, if reviews indicated it was written at this level. But goodbye Harry.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Show Time

My review of Show Time by Phil Harvey appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books today:

Phil Harvey has crafted a psychological thriller that takes reality shows, and in fact much of our popular culture, just one step further into a realm of true horror. His novel about the ultimate survivor program places seven flawed individuals on an island in the middle of Lake Michigan as winter approaches.
Each one who survives wins $200,000, but the producers clearly expect that not all will collect the money. The individuals ― four men and three women ― are carefully selected for not being well balanced, in the assumption that this will lead to sex, violence and other action that will boost ratings.
Television viewers follow the fate of the seven participants through a series of cameras and mics mounted on the island, as well as shots from an orbiting satellite and a drone that passes over the island. The seven (victims, one is tempted to say) are each given a certain amount of food, which is not enough to last the seven months they are to stay there, as well as varied tools ― a flashlight for one, a map for another, a couple of rifles with a few dozen bullets.
Ambrose, a compulsive gambler who enters the contest to pay off his debts, emerges as the natural leader of the group. Though married, he pairs off with Cecily, who is also married and who had the good sense to put on several extra pounds before beginning the contest. Other contestants include a Navy Seal who communicates in two-word mumbles, an African American who has made his way through society conforming to racial stereotypes, a bisexual woman who maintains a regimen of exercise and yoga, a model with certain nymphomaniac tendencies and a tightly wrapped young man full of resentment who refuses to cooperate in joint survival strategies.
The novel realistically conveys a certain preoccupation with sex among these seven nubile people in survival mode. Maureen, the model, plays a key role for the participants as well as for the show’s audience. No matter how titillating the sexual expression of emotion may be for the viewers, it is, in Harvey’s skilled hands, simply a natural mechanism for coping with the need to survive.
The narrative becomes increasingly chilling ― both literally and figuratively ― as the mild autumn days, when the participants have ample food from their stocks and the island’s wildlife, give way to the cold and ice and snow of a Michigan winter. Under Ambrose’s leadership, the survival crew develops a strategy for rationing supplies, sharing game and even creating a “clear zone” where they can disable enough of the mics and cameras to have a place for meetings that are not overheard by the producers or the audience.
That is how they are able to hatch a staged drama of their own to play a trick on the producers and get some measure of revenge for being exploited. Their deception  works until a careless remark on a hidden mic gives it away; the producers then violate the terms of the contract by intervening in the action and guiding the situation to their satisfaction.
While there is some mystery in all this, the author reveals in the opening chapter that one of the participants has died, creating the inevitable dilemma of every survival drama in which  people are faced with starvation. Part of the suspense is how the other six contestants reach that point and how they resolve it.
But it is mostly Harvey’s skill in delving into the psychology of the individuals that keeps the reader turning the pages. And he does it not through any heavy-handed interior monologues but through the dialogue and interaction of the individuals. The book would easily lend itself not only to a successful movie script but to an intense stage play.
The reader comes to know these individuals, to sympathize with them in spite of ― eventually even because of ― their flaws, and to root for them in their fight against not only nature but also the unnatural culture that has put them in their situation.
The producers, led by Janice, who is a virtual sociopath, remain cardboard foils for this action. They are simply part of the hostile environment challenging the contestants. One or two of the plot twists require a heavy dose of suspended disbelief from the reader. Harvey maintains a quiet buildup of suspense, but the climax and denouement may not reach the intensity expected by some readers.
So don’t expect fireworks. There is plenty of drama in this novel, but it remains subtle. There is catharsis, but it is not complete. In this sense, the novel is more realistic than its somewhat contrived plot, or even some of the reality shows it is based on, might suggest. It is a thinking reader’s psychological thriller and as such a thoroughly entertaining read.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Rogue Island

Bruce DeSilva has produced a well-written, well-edited but only mildly entertaining noir novel featuring a hero so obviously modeled on himself that it gets in the way of the story. The author succumbs to one of my pet peeves in these debut novels -- he inflicts his personal tastes and preferences on the reader in lieu of doing any genuine characterization.

DeSilva's author photo features him with a big stogie and his fictional hero Liam Mulligan distinguishes himself every few pages by "firing up" or "sparking up" a "cuban" with virtually everyone he talks to. In fact, it appears the secret to being a successful investigative reporter is to develop a cigar-smoker's network. Not that Mulligan is notably successful in his investigation although there are intimations of past glory (a 10-year-old Pulitzer gets a passing mention). We don't really know much about Mulligan in fact -- how old he is, what he looks like, or what he likes besides cigars and the Red Sox (and women) -- except that he never grew up.

Like most of the other characters in this book, Mulligan borders on caricature, and caricatures that are decades out of date. It's almost jarring when a cell phone is mentioned. The newsroom rivalries, the bookie, the strip joint are all pushed just a bit beyond the point where you want to suspend disbelief that people really talk and act like that.

But perhaps Providence, R.I. is really like that. We are told that DeSilva had a 41-year career as a newspaperman, so he must know. He does of course lament the decline and fall of newspapers and, after telling us what an irremediable mix of crime and corruption his hometown is, wants us to believe it will be worse off when the newspaper is gone.

As to the story itself: The plot about a serial arsonist torching buildings in a narrowly restricted neighborhood is fairly predictable. What little suspense there is tends to get lost in all the cigar-smoking, adolescent fumbling, and other childish antics of our ageless hero.

It's a little hard to understand how this book won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel. DeSilva makes it clear in his acknowledgments that he cultivated a dozen established crime fiction authors as he wrote the book, so perhaps that is part of the explanation. It tells you something about how literary awards get awarded.

For me, this novel is further evidence that self-published works can easily compete for readers' favor. Personally, I found Capriati's Blood  -- written by another veteran newspaperman, Lawrence DeMaria -- a much better read. It was leaner, more credible, less predictable and equally effective in conveying a sense of place (Staten Island in this case) as this Edgar Award winner from Tom Doherty's Forge imprint.