Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Wizards and Nipples and Ghosts, Oh My!

Delilah Devlin, Shattered Souls

Caitlyn O’Connell hears ghosts. She drank away her marriage and police career trying to silence the voices, and now she goes through the motions of a PI, alternating between binge and hangover. But her cop ex-husband drags her to a murder scene. Seems her training officer has been murdered, his body is missing, and supernatural elements implicate Cait in the death.

The story starts well, with a bloody handprint inside a mirror. Yes, inside, meaning inside the reflection. The juxtaposition of a common CSI clue with an uncommon location distinguishes the story from the crowd of urban fantasies mass-produced by large publishing conglomerates. Despite the drunken PI cliché, Devlin manages to start the story with remarkable momentum.

But then she devolves into Caribbean mysticoidal stereotypes, a dispirited investigation cribbed from Dashiell Hammett, and a complete lack of narrative tension. You could make a drinking game spotting what other urban fantasists Devlin ransacked for story elements she could assemble like Legos. Jim Butcher! Kat Richardson! Ilona Andrews! Another one down the hatch.

The investigation includes little actual procedural work. Only twice do the characters go anywhere crime related, preferring to visit wizards and mediums, letting spirits and undead informants drop knowledge in their laps. They don’t uncover clues so much as receive them; they don’t make discoveries so much as let someone, mainly Cait’s mentor, tell them the story from memory.

Caitlyn’s ex, Sam, pulls her into the investigation because the victim’s messages reveal she spoke to him mere hours before his death. I feel safe revealing this, because it happens in chapter one, and is never mentioned again. Something that major deserves further comment. But Devlin quickly abandons her premise, and its clue, in favor of common shopworn formulae.

This tedious inevitability gives Devlin’s story the texture of a funeral march. Everything feels planned, stopping at necessary locations, expressing the necessary sentiments, so we can arrive together at the end prescribed by the circumstances. Because we never get the sense that something unexpected could happen, the progress becomes entirely joyless in a hurry.

If the story feels utterly familiar and predictable, it is not salvaged by the erotic content. Devlin, a romance novelist, inserts sex scenes with mechanical regularity, every sixty to seventy pages. The rest of the story becomes beholden to these scenes. They do not advance the plot, but overwhelm it, particularly because they are so completely devoid of romance.

Devlin barrages readers with details about body parts, fluids, and genitals. I’ve read online porn with more nuanced dialog and deeper characterization. Devlin’s cutesy-poo euphemisms for genitalia, painfully lurid descriptions of sex acts, and total separation of the heart from the groin, make me wonder how grown-up these characters, and her intended audience, actually are.

This becomes most (ahem) pointed with Devlin’s obsessive interest in Cait’s nipples. Her long, detailed, frequent discursions on nipple behavior resemble middle-school locker room bull sessions. Surely a character specified as already past thirty has a more mature awareness of her own body than to gauge her romantic inclinations by how often her nipples stand up.

Before long we realize that Devlin’s story exists only to bind the sex scenes together. Perhaps that’s why, throughout, it felt like the story was building to an inevitable end. Devlin recycles stereotypes from a million hard-boiled cop movies and urban fantasy novels, because what happens doesn’t matter as long as the characters get to rub genitals again.

Characters have sex in novels. Fantasists I’ve reviewed, like Vicki Pettersson and Melissa Olson, use sex to propel the story or reveal something about their characters. The conflict between Cait’s procedural efforts and her romantic entanglements bears great initial promise. I wanted to like how Cait’s relationships helped unpack her story’s premise.

But Devlin’s characters discuss sex like teenagers just discovering their libidos. The coarse language and long, lurid descriptions made me feel like I’d walked in on my parents in flagrante delicto. Scenes that should have fired my loins quickly became a joyless slog. I started skipping the sex scenes, hoping the story would resume momentum afterward. By and large, it doesn’t.

Because these unromantic scenes reveal nothing about the characters, or their story, or even imply a relationship beyond the rubbing of parts, they do not invite us to participate in their journey. The story and the sex form a weird symbiosis of chilling dispassion. I wanted to escape the scenes as fast as I could. Which is what I wound up doing with the book, too.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Long Haul and the Short Attention Span

Carl Honoré, The Slow Fix: Solve Problems, Work Smarter, and Live Better in a World Addicted to Speed

As an amateur reviewer, I have no greater frustration than agreeing with a book’s core thesis, but feeling disappointed by its execution. Take this one: I like Carl Honoré’s claim that we must abandon the myth of the “quick fix,” in which we want to spot-check problems with spit and string and fairy dust. Particularly in light of recent hot-button news, we need to dispel that illusion and reawaken our passion for long-term investment in slow, fundamental remedies.

But when Honoré stops talking abstractions and gets into the details, he becomes an object lesson in his own point. He anchors each of his fourteen very short chapters on a narrative that supports his point, but only spends about half of each chapter on his exemplar story. He name-drops sources old and new, caroms among interesting but loosely organized anecdotes, and doesn’t so much make his point as circle it, waiting for us to make his connections.

What Honoré terms “the slow fix” comprises a range of solutions to life’s problems, which we can apply individually or (ideally) in some combination. We might think of these solutions as character traits, or leadership skills. They include, but are not limited to, long-range thinking, preparing for diverse circumstances, heeding the right advice, and honing our intuition. Our parents tried to teach us these traits as kids, but as adults, we too often need to be reminded.

Again, I agree with this, in principle. But Honoré explicates what each of these means in ways that sprawl all over the map. He will anchor a chapter about, say, fine detail thinking, on the story of an oil rig inspector who accurately predicted a major blowout. But he’ll veer off, for little visible reason, to a paragraph about Steve Jobs, two paragraphs on classical music, a brief discourse on surgical antibiotics. It’s like watching an ADHD student trying to paint.

In my favorite example, Honoré stops a discursion on a successful effort to revive a decrepit urban school, to quote a French marriage counselor. Honoré’s source wants us to understand the importance of finding the unstated story behind one incident: “You cannot understand a Shakespearean play by listening to one soliloquy... A relationship is like a large and complex puzzle, so you need to examine all the pieces and then work out how to fit them together.”

That’s a clever quote, to underscore a valid point. But in context, what does it mean? It’s a prime example of what rhetorician Gerald Graff calls a “hit-and-run quotation,” where an author will throw some citation in, expecting the audience to instinctively understand why it matters. That line deserves to be unpacked more, because thrown out as it is, it looks like an inexplicable digression that slows the pace of an already rocky narrative.

I so much wanted to like this book. Research has shown, time and again, that the key to success rests on long-term investments and tenacity. You can tell how someone will handle work, education, and life by how long they can work on a math problem before they give up. Education journalist Paul Tough stresses the point that long-term perseverance makes more of a difference than sudden flashes of genius.

But Honoré just gives me no place to hang my hat. As he slaloms through his list of bromides, anecdotes, and pointers, he pauses on none of them long enough for them to have any sense of depth, or for them to feel particularly real to me. Though I did take a few valuable lessons from this book, one by one, I really felt Honoré expected me to supply the overarching narrative for him.

Honoré fixes his book among writers like Malcolm Gladwell, Susan Cain, and Charles Duhigg. And not only among them, he quotes them. I keep wondering if Honoré has a new idea for his context. The New Republic reviewed a book by the disgraced Jonah Lehrer as “self-help for people who would be embarrassed to be seen reading it.” I didn’t know what that meant at the time, but reading this book, I think I now understand.

In his introduction, Honoré admits he falls into the trap of the quick fix, and that he wrote this book as much for himself as for us. To which I reply: and how! Excluding the back matter, this book runs less than 200 pages. Honoré’s important, timely thesis deserves much more conscientious unpacking. Instead, it becomes an object lesson in our society’s addiction to haste.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Terry Felber's Allegory of Two Masters

Terry Felber, The Legend of the Monk and the Merchant: Twelve Keys to Successful Living

Dave Ramsey lavishes praise on this, evangelist Terry Felber’s allegory of Christian mercantilism. In his new foreword, Ramsey extols Felber’s ethic that “What the merchant does is a ministry.” I really wanted to agree. But Felber approaches this ethic from a high-handed position in praise of wealth, simply overlooking anything that challenges his narrative, and excluding any Christian who isn’t rich.

In the Italian Renaissance, prosperous merchant Antonio brings his grandson Julio on a pilgrimage to Rome. There he shares his story of lessons learned at the knees of his two mentors, the monk Felipo and the merchant Alessio. Over the course of years, Antonio slowly unpacks the ways in which Christ’s message applies to business and money. From this, he learns Twelve Principles, which he passes on to Julio.

Taken by themselves, Antonio’s Twelve Principles seem pretty solid. They describe such basic practices as providing for your family, persevering through hardship, and not letting money get between us and the people we love. If we ignore the potentially awful ramifications, as Felber does in this brief novella, these Twelve Principles make a pretty good basis for doing ethical business from a Christian perspective.

Okay, Principle Two looks pretty horrific out of context. The other eleven are solid.

Unless, sadly, we examine the reverse. Felber’s Antonio asserts that if we work hard, God will prosper our doings. Perhaps. Refusing honest work will certainly hasten failure. But consider diligent workers who do not prosper. Either God does not prosper everyone equally, or their apparent failure unmasks hidden corruption. Should we assume the bankers who crashed Bear Stearns were immoral, but the Goldman bankers who got bailouts were holy?

My problem stems from Felber’s binary world of The Godly and The Wealthy. (Felber’s Godly are professional religious, not ordinary Christians.) I was an educator; thanks to budget cuts, I’m now a laborer. So I fit neither of Felber’s categories. What about my fellow laborers, many working two jobs, achieving another’s dream. Few will ever emerge from the spiral of bills, obligations, and bodily weariness. Has God abandoned us?

Note that Felber sets his allegory in the Italian Renaissance, when cheap credit allowed those with connections to make massive capital investments in factories, ships, and other durable goods. Felber’s mentor character, Alessio, is a shipping magnate with a private fleet. But his typical merchant seaman can never hope to own his own fleet. He might captain Alessio’s boat, but he will always work for somebody else.

Along the way, Felber’s characters perform remarkable verbal gymnastics finding ways to prove that the scriptural injunctions against accumulating wealth or conducting cutthroat business don’t really apply to them. Bonhoeffer, in The Cost of Discipleship, has choice words for people who indulge this sort of self-deception. We could explain away all of scripture if we engage in legalistic wrangling. By finding wide loopholes, that’s just what Felber does.

Felber’s narrative is very I-oriented, very first-person singular. Antonio, Alessio, and Julio spend chapters discussing what God wants to give them, but about three pages on what obligations they have to God. Not one word on topics like how bosses pay workers, and only a glancing nod to “service to a customer... as long as it is ethical” (54). “Ethical,” incidentally, remains undefined; the only virtue named is tithing.

When we surpass Felber’s verbal fencing, we see that scripture does not promise us wealth, comfort, or stability in this life. We face insecurity (Luke 9:58), strife (Matthew 10:34), and persecutions (Mark 10:30). Those who look to scriptural Christianity to make them well-liked in the eyes of their neighbors have built their house upon sand. Christ does not call us to be popular with the world; He calls us to be faithful to our Father in Heaven.

I have known rich people. Not many, but I have known them. One couple I know tried to maintain their Christian beliefs as money accumulated. But as their business demanded more time, and they grew estranged from each other, their children, and their church, they learned my One Principle: You don’t own that kind of money. It owns you. And we know what scripture teaches about the servant of two masters.

Perhaps Felber’s allegory holds promise, if readers apply his Twelve Principles when making their initial business plan. But I fear that, like Ayn Rand’s atheist libertarianism, too many people will apply this reasoning retroactively to reassure themselves that they are good people. Money is only as moral as the person using it.

On a related topic:
Put Your Money Where Your Soul Is

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Paolo Bacigalupi's Carbon-Soaked Apocalypse

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part Seven
Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl

When the rest of the world drowned in carbon and rising seas, Thailand stood strong, held off the tide, and kept producing its own crops. But genetically customized diseases threaten to overwhelm this last bastion of purity. American companies jockey for position, nativist troops fight to keep the round-eyes out, and one desperate, scared, abandoned woman, grown in a vat as a toy for rich men, struggles to stay alive in the face of world-smashing hostility.

Science fiction, despite its reputation for novelty and experimentation, largely has a history of extreme distrust of technology. While a few authors, like Isaac Asimov, place great trust in human invention, most believe the law of unintended consequences has been openly proved by history, and will obtain in the future. Paolo Bacigalupi's award-winning short fiction has shown ways in which humanity risks destroying this world by our own unfettered greed.

His debut novel goes even further in depth, providing a grim and frightening glimpse of post-apocalyptic world-building. As one group, blind to the lessons of the past, tries to recapture what they think of as lost glory, another stands for control, fighting against the coming of a bleak post-human world. Bacigalupi stands out from the mass of dystopian science fiction writers in his intricate attention to the human element in his narrative.

Many polemic writers find it easy to lapse into white hats versus black hats. No such trap here. Bacigalupi's characters are so fully defined that, in reading, I found my loyalties sliding back and forth. The guy I hated a moment ago suddenly becomes the hero of the next chapter; the virtuous victim goes on a rampage and suddenly I'm hoping she gets her own. This is a complex novel that does not permit the audience to cling to easy answers or snap judgments.

Paolo Bacigalupi
The technology is also eye-opening. One moment, it seems Bacigalupi has his eyes on the future (this year's genetically optimized crops fight last year's genetically optimized blights), and in the next, he looks over his shoulder at the past (treadle-driven appliances and clockwork springs). This is a possible future very different from any I recall reading recently, and so minutely realized that it's easy to think we may actually be headed in just this direction.

Yet in this difference, many important components remain the same. A world devastated by climatic malpractice, in which environmental ministries have the armed authority once reserved to foil murderers and thieves, sees the conflict between environment and trade persevere. But in this new world, where so much more is at stake because so much less exists, the trade/environment conflict resembles less diplomatic wrangling, more open civil war.

On the surface, humans remain human. Our vices and, too infrequently, our virtues, remain intact, even as the playing field in which we utilize them changes. Which is worth more, making a living or breathing clean air? While cold logic suggests there is no conflict—money isn’t worth much to the dead—logic has little to do with how we live our lives, and yes, sometimes we do have to make that choice. Virtue seldom pays its own bills.

But if humans remain human, that apparent truism founders when technology forces the question: what is a human? The titular windup girl, a vat-grown bodyguard and sex toy, can be abandoned without a backward glance because she is property. Lechers can mistreat her, handlers profit from her misery, and strangers beat her in public, because she isn’t legally human. When her desperation boils into violence, though, she knows deep within that she has a soul.

Science fiction, like other literature, has its traditions. The dystopian apocalyptic future has, ironically, a storied past. But as the circumstances we fear will kill us continually evolve, so do the consequences we fear await those who survive. We cannot accept the idea that everything could end. But we cannot deny that the status quo cannot stand. Whether nuclear war, alien invasion, or biological catastrophe, sci-fi collapse says as much about present society as the future we depict.

This is high-tension fiction in a complex and plausible scientific future. It's a dire warning of what we may face if we don't mend our ways and start looking after our earth. And it's a gripping story of politics, high-stakes finance, and science struggling for dominance in a world that has been transformed beyond repair. I've been looking for well-written hard science fiction for a long time. Here I've finally found it.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Eliza Wood Creates God In Her Own Image

Eliza Wood, Crisis of Faith

Eliza Wood wants to be Dan Brown for the loyal opposition. She wants to have God, and she wants to have Christ, but she wants to exclude any Scriptural content that seems outdated or makes her uncomfortable. Her first book attempts to kick-start debate about the future of religion in America. Sadly, people don’t debate boring, obtuse books that treat readers like cattle to be herded.

In the wake of Christian terror attacks, the President convenes a blue ribbon panel. Their mission: to examine the Holy Bible, purge it of impure influence, excise any passages that offend modern tender sensibilities, and push a new, nonprovocative religion on the world. Christian Identity extremists in California, meanwhile, somehow take offense at this and start planning a violent pushback to assert their own religious and secular primacy.

The format Wood chooses is an annoying contrivance. Novels are driven by action and dialog. But entire chapters go by in which no action takes place. The characters don’t converse, they discourse at one another, in monologues which lap over pages and pages, interspersed with block quotes, in-text citations, and bullet lists. Yes, inside the character monologues. They aren’t speaking, they’re reciting the author’s position paper.

Wood further peppers these monologues with endnotes. Some of these notes direct readers to her appendices, of which she has twelve. Many include lists extracted from the interwebs. Others include citations of “sources.” Ms. Wood is insufficiently discerning in her sources. I may disagree with his conclusions, but Bart Ehrman is at least a serious scholar. Dan Brown is not. Likewise, Christopher Hitchens: strong source. Glenn Beck: weak source.

Stop rolling your eyes.

Not that her narrative completely lacks action. In rare moments, something beyond oration actually happens. Take the scene, around page 100, when “Radical Christians” come gunning (literally gunning) for an Ayurvedic lecturer for “the book I wrote on Jesus.” Because Richard Dawkins lives in fear of his life. Yeah. By making the rare action about the conflict between unrelenting virtue and nameless straw men, Wood weakens an already flimsy story.

This slovenly research and contrived format result in prose that ballyhoos its weakness. Wood doesn’t bother to know anything about conservative Christians on their own terms; she simply reduces them to their most ridiculous outliers. She completely fails to see them in context: mainstream Christianity has not warmed to religious extremists. Scott Roeder and Eric Rudolph were reportedly astounded when their violence failed to hasten a Christian revolution.

Readers will probably greet the objections Wood raises to conventional Christian theology with shock and horror if they haven’t cracked their Bibles since grade school. Me, I grappled with her “astonishing” finds about, say, the changing role of women or slaves, clear back in 9th grade. Thinkers from Augustine and Aquinas to Bonhoeffer and King dealt with them even earlier. Her professed stupefaction makes Wood look merely uninformed.

Basically, Wood’s characters, acting as her voicebox, want God and Jesus, but none of the hard scriptural content that makes faith unpalatable for so many. Wood’s characters want to remake God in their own modernist image, bland, affable, and neutral. If the Bible that already exists doesn’t support their secularized liberal values, we should write our own Bible to remind us we’re good enough and sanctified as we are.

But scripture isn’t supposed to make us comfortable! Read the Tanakh or the Gospels: Jesus and the prophets did not come to confirm common earthly values. They came to call people out of worldly self-satisfaction, to remind us that living fully can often mean abjuring ourselves. The Hebrew and Christian scriptures (and you’ll see it in Confucius, the Buddha, the Koran, and elsewhere) preached against the very ethos that motivates Wood’s characters.

Personally, I’m with John Polkinghorne, particle physicist and Anglican priest. In Testing Scripture, Polkinghorne writes that we cannot read scripture in a vacuum, as Wood evidently does. Genesis was not written on Monday, and Revelation on Tuesday. Changing historical context matters. The mores of the audience matter. The Bible is not a novel to read cover to cover; it is a topic to meditate on, pray over, and love.

Wood’s official bio calls her “a social thought instigator on religious topics.” Well, this book might earn cheers from readers who already agree with her. But anybody who has spent any time contemplating ancient beliefs in modern context will find her contentions old hat, and her style tedious. I suspect Wood sets her cause back several paces with this tone-deaf book.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Forgotten Aesop

Chandler A. Phillips, Proverbial Aesop: The Complete Aesopic Proverbs Translated with Commentary

Aesop is remembered for his numerous fables, which are not simply children’s stories as we’ve heard for years, but actually served important illustrative value in formal argument. But Chandler Phillips, a physician and engineer as well as a classicist, openly laments the virtual disappearance of Aesop’s proverbs. So, sixty years after the authoritative corpus of Aesop was compiled, he presents the first authoritative English translation of Aesop’s proverbs.

Proverbs represent a form of ideas in common circulation, a reinvention of received wisdom which, when compressed into one or two sentences, become revitalized. We sometimes think of proverbs as wisdom nuggets, tossed out for momentary consumption. But Phillips contends that proverbs act as compressed fables, and he backs that by comparing Aesop’s proverbs to his fables, and comparing his proverbs to common Greek, Latin, and Arabic wisdom sayings.

But proverbs go beyond encapsulating “the moral of the story.” They also reinvent wisdom, which may come from multiple sources, to make it relevant to new and changing situations. That’s why, Phillips contends, few of Aesop’s proverbs come directly from his more famous fables. Instead, they cast new light on wisdom the proverbist assumes his audience already knows. Aesop’s proverbs may refer to long-lost literary ancestors.

And that’s what makes these nuggets important to us. The loss of direct knowledge across the intervening centuries makes these little sayings valuable, not just in understanding how people thought in Classical times, but in understanding how we see the world, and ourselves in it, today. How have our ideas changed, and how have they stayed the same? How are we essentially similar to our Greek forebears, and how have we invented our own cultural identity?

Aesop, by Diego Velasquez
Some of Aesop’s proverbs make perfect sense to us across the millennia. When he says “The snake sheds its skin, but not its true character,” we don’t have to unpack this. When he says “You may have a doctor as a friend, but you should not continuously need doctoring,” Aesop is speaking to a situation which remains present to us. We know what he means, because we see snakes molt, and we know doctors in our neighborhood.

Other proverbs rely on cultural context. Because we are not surrounded by the language of Greek society and religious ritual, we must spend time working to understand sayings like “A person desiring a cake of melted figs sets their own house on fire.” Such sayings become like Zen koans, which demand our careful contemplation, even as we realize we will never achieve a single “correct” answer. They say something about us, even if ancient truths remain opaque.

People who dismiss fables, proverbs, and parables as “mere” children’s stories or historical relics thus miss the point. These discrete wisdom packets advance current, ongoing debates about ourselves. They may do so in an indirect manner, but as we unpack ourselves in their densely woven, mythologically allusive content, we grow in understanding, not just of the absolute truth the proverb conveys, but also in the more subtle understanding of our own souls.

Our refusal to take proverbs seriously comes at our own detriment. All cultures have proverbs of some kind, but serious scholars routinely dismiss such compressed wisdom. I’ve seen biblical proverbs used in Sunday School classes, though the Wisdom Literature scarcely exists in most Protestant lectionaries. The implication, of course, is that only children benefit from compressed nuggets of wisdom; grown-ups need to spend time spinning longer narratives. Yeah, right.

Because these proverbs differ from Aesop’s fables, they bear consideration in their own right. The fables, like the proverbs, were not meant as mere metaphoric instruction for children; they were part of important legal arguments, and the ability to unpack, condense, expand, and create parables and fables was the center of a Greek education. Classicist George A. Kennedy goes into this in more detail in his Progymnasmata.

As these proverbs were created for adults, they deserve treatment that shocks away our simplistic thinking. Which is what Phillips offers: he reinvents this knowledge in a way that transcends the historical moment when they were written. But instead of telling us directly what the proverbs mean, he draws comparisons and allusions so that, like the Original Greeks, we can understand them in a more oblique, metaphorical manner.

The proverbs, like the fables, were not meant to be comprehended head-on. Instead, they reveal inner truths, some of which continue to shock and surprise. That is, they do if we contemplate them in the manner Aesop intended, and Phillips enables.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Rot at the Heart of Camelot

David R. Stokes, Camelot's Cousin: an Espionage Thriller

Radio talker and amateur historian Templeton Davis becomes proud owner of an antique briefcase buried half a century ago on a Virginia farm. But when he opens it, he finds code books, a camera full of evidence, and a remarkable secret. Seems this briefcase was once owned by notorious traitor Kim Philby, and Temp Davis finds himself tracking the last missing member of the Cambridge Five.

David R. Stokes, a radio pundit and part-time historian himself, has a really strong idea for a novel here. His motivating incident plays well with his central protagonist, who perhaps resembles Stokes’ idealized self-concept, but is interesting and compelling nonetheless. But Stokes’ debut novel could really use a firm editorial hand, because his strong idea gets lost among strange flowing spandrels and clunky formatting.

If, like me, you slept through World History 101, the Cambridge Five were a ring of Soviet spies recruited in Britain before World War II. Sons of privilege, they had grown disillusioned with Western capitalism and saw the USSR as some utopian experiment. Philby was the most famous, because he was in line to lead MI-6, Britain’s intelligence service. Next most famous must be the Fifth Man, who remains unidentified to this day.

Stokes is only the latest in a string of novelists, historians, and dramatists to posit the Fifth Man’s identity. Like the other four, Stokes’ suspect was born to privilege, and invested decades into the process of accruing power and influence. Then he used that influence to steer important global affairs. And despite the title, Stokes does not suggest the Fifth Man was that popular talk radio punching bag, Jack Kennedy.

Unfortunately Stokes doesn’t come from a fiction background. His prior book, The Shooting Salvationist, was an excellent history of a major, but nearly forgotten, American crime. But historians, like Stokes, butter their bread by expounding details and contextualizing facts. Novelists make choices. What must I include, and what can I omit? What must I explain now, and what can I save for later? What is necessary, and what is subtext?

Stokes doesn’t make such choices. He includes long discursions on historical background, whether it actually advances the story or not. His character backgrounds, spelled out the first time he introduces a character, sometimes spill over several pages. One scene that stands out in my memory, unpacking the secrets of a 1938 Scottish holiday weekend, receives such lengthy background that Stokes needs two whole chapters of exposition to reach the action.

When I say “two whole chapters,” understand: these chapters are short. Scenes sprawl across pages and pages, but those scenes are subdivided, requiring three or four chapters to have a conversation. Assuming, of course, that the characters actually get around to to talking, because Stokes may hold them in limbo for chapters while he expounds historical details or espionage procedure.

Then, while we wait for the story to resume, Stokes’ typography distracts from his exposition. His writing suffers with quirky usage, like misplaced apostrophe’s, misplaced Capitalization, and italics that make no sense in context. Some of the typos suggest Stokes didn’t proofread his own work, or needs a copy checker. Others look like Unicode errors, like Stokes formatted his book in Microsoft Word and then e-mailed it to his publisher.

All this disappointing baggage distracts from Stokes’ story, which is quite good. Temp Davis’ careful unpacking of the Fifth Man lets him make connections with surviving members of the Cold War intelligence community, while lingering ghosts of Soviet paranoia start to intrude on Temp’s life. The conflict, when it pokes out through Stokes’ cloud of language, unfolds with remarkable urgency. I really wanted to like this story.

I just wish Stokes had employed an editor. A little Maxwell Perkins could have helped Stokes turn this raw material into a gripping, Ian Fleming-esque international thriller. I’ve seen writing like this before: Stokes has a strong idea, but he never had anyone acting as a surrogate audience to help clarify his ideas. He assumes that, because his writing makes sense to him, it will make sense to us, too.

Stokes’ story succeeds, where it does, from his unquestionable love for his subject. His background as a historian gives this novel a deep background and remarkable verisimilitude. I enjoy this book when Stokes doesn’t put himself between the story and me. But without needed outside viewpoints to make sure Stokes is communicating with his audience, his words form a barrier between us and his vision. The struggle never resolves itself.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Age of Anti-Anti-Americanism

Max Paul Friedman, Rethinking Anti-Americanism: The History of an Exceptional Concept in American Foreign Relations

American political, economic, and media leaders have used the claim of global anti-Americanism for over two centuries to silence critics who question America on the world stage. But is the anti-American claim real? We don’t hear complaints about “anti-Chinaism,” even as China comes to rival America’s international clout. American University historian Max Paul Friedman unpacks the anti-American claim. His findings may surprise you.

Early on, Friedman admits that anti-Americanism does exist. Some political philosophies, like Nazism and Bolshevism, have included open opposition to America, and American actions, as core principles. But such philosophies are predictable and boring. And they certainly don’t explain how so many putative American allies, like France and Germany, have become known as hotbeds of anti-American sentiment, especially in times of war.

Too often, American pundits have used the claim of anti-Americanism to silence dissent and avoid analyzing criticisms on their merits. By assuming irrational prejudice or ideological opposition from anyone who would criticize, Friedman says, American leaders have allowed themselves to not face the consequences of their actions, instead kicking the ball down the field to future generations. This has consistently resulted in Americans paying for rash actions.

At least in the post-war years, anti-American claims have focused on America’s fixation with Cold War dichotomies. Anyone who was less than a free-market absolutist must surely have been in bed with Moscow. Anyone who didn’t agree with American interests was treated as a dirty pinko Comsymp and enemy of the state. This consistently applied, even when America, or proxies like United Fruit, acted in ways that contradicted American well-being.

Nations like Vietnam or Guatemala, which initially wanted the autonomy America promised the “global North,” got tarred with anti-American labels. By dismissing honest criticism, America hastened the environment it inveighed against, as moderates and non-partisans found themselves marginalized. Globally, this reduces the debate to one between the hard right (often mistakenly called pro-American) and the extreme left. America inadvertently bred Communism.

At home, McCarthyism chilled honest debate and silenced real solutions. Anyone who would pursue democratic, free-market reform has had to endure attacks; only advances which accord with acceptable doctrine were allowed any foothold. This spilled into how America treated other nations: France, for instance, was disparaged as a beachhead of Communism for warning America against entanglements in its former colony, Vietnam.

This doctrinaire assumption that America must be right hasn’t much hurt America’s enemies. But it has stifled those who call the United States to uphold its own ideals: civil rights protestors, anti-nuclear activists, and global nationalists have all been called “anti-American.” Thus needed reforms, like equal rights for American minorities, have been impeded, and conflicts, like Vietnam and Iraq, have dragged on far longer than they should.

Fear of anti-American sentiment has also prompted America to meddle in other nations’ internal affairs. As early as the 19th Century, America so feared nationalist sentiment overseas that it squelched democracy in Cuba and the Philippines. This tendency increased during the Cold War. Guatemala wanted to foster American-style democracy and capitalism. But because they expropriated land from United Fruit, Guatemala was called “anti-American,” and attacked.

Friedman tracks America’s fears of anti-Americanism back to before 1776. Whenever anyone has second-guessed America’s ability to fulfil its own lofty rhetoric, or lamented its tendency to live out poor impulses, pundits disparaged them as anti-American. Charles Dickens was called anti-American because he had such grandiose expectations of America’s egalitarianism and justice that his disappointment was almost inevitable.

Anti-Americanism, at root, is a fallacy used to silence other arguments. Not that it’s false—actual philosophies have promulgated opposition to America just because it’s what they believed. But these have been far rarer than the rhetoric would have us believe, and as a result, all opposition, no matter how relevant or truthful, has been reduced to the level of Nazism, easily dismissed. Debates stall on a national and global scale.

If America would advance its interests internationally; if America would oppose totalitarianism and promote democracy; if America would be the shining city we’ve imagined, America must accept criticism. We don’t know everything about other nations and cultures. We can’t see them in their own terms. As the War on Terror succeeds Cold War, America’s need to speak frankly with, and listen clearly to, other nations has never been greater.

Friedman doesn’t preach weak-water internationalism. He just wants America to believe its own promises. America, as a principle, is about inclusion. When obstructionists cry “anti-Americanism” to exclude people and ideas, America suffers for such blindness.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Christian Signal and the Worldly Noise

Johnnie Moore, Dirty God: Jesus in the Trenches

Broadcasting professionals speak of the “signal-to-noise ratio” to describe how much information reaches the receiver, and how much vanishes into static. We can think of today’s media-saturated world, where we’re bombarded on all sides by constant static, as the noise. This would make any message we must urgently convey—political, social, religious—the signal. And it’s getting hard these days to push any signal through the noise.

Christian academic Johnnie Moore attempt to recast the often sanitized Christian story in terms accessible to modern seekers. In some ways he resembles better known writers like Shane Claiborne and Rob Bell, who dare suggest that Biblical Christianity little resembles the rote observances in modern churches. I agree with Bell, Claiborne, and Moore. But Moore uses bland language in mundane ways. His signal would never penetrate the noise.

Moore’s thesis, which any Bible-believing Christian would accept, contends that the Christian message provides a powerful counter to earthly narratives. In a world enamored of human power and earthly glory, Jesus chose a path of humility and poverty, leading to his own death, so that he might ennoble ordinary people like us. If we trust in Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection, we can know the honor once reserved for priests and kings.

Again, I agree with this message. But Moore pitches it in “seeker-friendly” language designed to not scare off spiritual hopefuls. Though I understand this motivation, Christian language is so innately bound to Western society that I doubt many people really don’t know what core doctrinal language means. By stripping away even elementary terminology, Moore reduces his otherwise admirable signal to the level of the surrounding noise.

Consider these representative examples:
What I like best about the narrow way of grace versus the wide way of works is that all along the way are massive billboards that say in every language of the world: “You’re not guilty! You’re forgiven! You’re healed. Things are okay!” (56)
Jesus can hold the universe, which he created, in the palm of his hand. Even so, Jesus comes to us totally differently from any other god. He entered history as a God who looked more like man. (33)
Grace is unorthodox. When it is a part of someone’s life, it should cause others to wonder why this person is behaving this way. Someone who lives a lifestyle of grace should seem to live out a different ethic. (121)
[Early Christians] thought of Jesus the way we think of a fireman rescuing a child from a house crackling and exploding in flames. They thought of Jesus the way we think of a lifeguard pulling a drowning man from the tumbling ocean. (105)
Understand, Moore says nothing I dispute. Despite his unorthodox use of the word “unorthodox,” in terms of Christian belief, everything he says is spot on. It’s also ordinary. Christians and non-Christians alike have heard this static for most of their lives, and it’s banal. Spiritual seekers want a compelling counter-narrative that speaks to their lived situation, not Sunday School pamphlets that repeat pedestrian slogans they’ve heard since childhood.

For instance, what is a “lifestyle of grace”? Moore talks about it in broad, sweeping terms. But his only concrete example is the radical forgiveness the locals extended following the school shooting in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. While I like that example, it contradicts Moore’s point, because Moore claims Christians should embody Christ in ordinary circumstances. Nickel Mines, and its school, are Amish. Moore doesn’t comment on the gap.

He also misses the contemporary implications of Christ’s social message. He notes, correctly, that Jesus preached against religious leaders of his day. But he elides the fact that the religious leaders were also political leaders, and that the Temple priests appeased Rome to retain their earthly power. Moore teaches and administers at Liberty University, which has allied with the Republican Party and U.S. nationalism. The parallel goes unheeded.

Throughout, Moore’s reliance on second-person-singular language bugs me. Jesus came for you. Jesus’ blood sets you free. Moore occasionally says “we,” but not very often. His message lacks the community spirit of the Book of Acts, or the Hebrew urgency of culture-wide prophetic awakening. Again, Moore isn’t wrong; his signal just gets lost in the noise.

Our world suffers unprecedented vulnerability to religious extremism, woowoo cults, and existential despair. Many people desire spirituality, but Christianity offers sweeping bromides to people seeking a real, substantive counternarrative. Moore never says anything out-and-out wrong, but he reinforces my recurring frustration with current Christianity’s biggest failing, its appalling vagueness.

On a related topic:
If God Is Awesome, Why Is Christian Lingo So Tedious?

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Violence Will Solve the Arab Spring, Apparently

Jac Simensen, Stone the Devil

Billionaire defense contractor Nicholas Donner and his deputy, retired general Frank “Fidel” Thornton, dread the spreading anarchy in the Mideast, post-Arab Spring. When a grieving Iranian-American laborer blames Muslims for the violence surrounding his family, Donner’s party turns him into a walking weapon. Then they coldly point him at the holiest site in the world’s second largest religion. Pax Americana apparently ensues

In his fourth novel, Jac Simensen tries to capture Tom Clancy’s magic in a bottle. But at 182 crowded pages, this feels more like an outline waiting to be completed. Clancy’s shortest novels run three to four times this length, for good reason. Because Simensen’s tale of privatized foreign policy involves so many contexts outside readers’ experience, it just needs unpacked. Stuff happens too fast for readers to feel particularly involved.

Because this book is so short, and events proceed at a headlong pace, I can’t review this book without spoilers. Yet Simensen builds his story on such a lattice of premises, balanced like a Jenga game, that I can’t touch one without disturbing them all. Start with the premise of freelance national security through strategic violence. Governments have a name for non-state actors who use violence to achieve political ends: terrorists.

Donner and his company are meant to be the heroes, or at least the protagonists, of this story. Yet watching them manipulate despondent widower Rusty Samadi into carrying their bomb for them, they exactly resemble al-Qaeda. These are our heroes? Donner also gets by on threats, force, and payment under the table, just like Don Corleone. We never get a horse’s head in bed, but we do get a murdered cat.

Samadi’s grief was, I admit, well written. Simensen spends long early chapters establishing the personal backgrounds of his large ensemble of characters, and when Samadi’s wife dies in front of him, I really felt it. But after seventy pages of slow build, the whole story suddenly accelerates beyond credibility, and huge story blocks get elided. The process of training an English-speaking American to pass as a Muslim happens entirely offstage.

This loss of realistic detail extends to the whole story. Donner’s family realizes he intends something terrible, and does everything possible to intervene. Then they learn he means to kill thousands in their holiest place of worship. This causes them moral qualms that they swallow with remarkable alacrity, going in the space of one sob from wanting to stop it, to accepting it as the best hope for a bad situation.

And I cannot credit, as Simensen does, that when a dirty bomb destroys the Ka’aba in Mecca, global Muslims would blame Iran. Surely Muslims realize that the Islamic world’s most publicly pietistic government would not destroy their faith’s holiest site, planted evidence notwithstanding. Yet Simensen depicts Muslims retaliating against Iran, while America sits and gloats.

Simensen’s Donner even mouths historical inaccuracies to justify his self-righteousness. He claims that Ronald Reagan, with Arab connivance, manipulated petroleum prices to starve the Soviets and end the Cold War. But history says that oil strikes in Siberia, Prudhoe Bay, Nigeria, and the North Sea broke the 1973 OPEC embargo. I can’t tell whether Donner made the error, or Simensen, or even if it’s an error rather than deliberate self-deception.

In lit-crit we speak of the “intentional fallacy.” This means I can’t proclaim to know the thoughts in an author’s head from reading his words. I cannot know that Simensen thinks Yanqui terrorism would restore American dominance, or that the ends justify the cynical Realpolitik means. But because he presents no other alternatives, and ends the story with General Thornton trying to franchise his freelance jackboot diplomacy, it sure seems likely.

When I read the back cover synopsis, I feared I held yet another ethnocentric paean to vigilante diplomacy. It wouldn't be my first. To his credit, Simensen shows enough subtlety of thought to avoid seeming to actually endorse the violence underpinning his plot. But because he runs so short, who can say what he does intend. This is no love song to righteous violence; it’s just a heated rush.

Simensen does himself no favors keeping his hugely complex thriller so short. Because he does too much too fast, we never share his characters’ journey, and thus never see their choices as plausible. Despite his politics (Clancy, too, is a nationalist firebrand), Simensen could have sold this. But he gave me nothing to consider but how unlikely I find his premise, and that’s what I take from the experience.

Edit: After first writing this review, I received an e-mail from the author, in which he said this:

My intent was to show Donner and company as cold blooded terrorists and their cynical actions equal to Islamic extremist's terrorism. (My condemnation of their actions may have been too subtle for that to come through.) I also wanted to explore the proposition that today's ultra-rich may have the capability to take on activities previously only possible by governments, (for evil or good.) To some extent, The Gates Foundation is doing this today.... perhaps it wouldn't be too big a next step for some multi-billionaire, xenophobic, nut-case to decide to directly take on who he/she perceives to be enemies of the United States?

I guess, in hindsight, I can see that. But I really did not get that in the reading experience. I think this, too, contributes to my opinion that the book is too short to accomplish the author's goals, because a longer book that lingered more on the long-term implications might have made that clearer.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Andrew Klavan's Hollywood on Hudson

Andrew Klavan, A Killer in the Wind

Inspector Dan Champion, ex-NYPD, dedicated his career to busting a child prostitution ring led by the enigmatic Fat Woman. But he shot a suspect in a narcotic haze, ending the investigation. Creative perjury saved his career, but now he works patrol upstate. Worse, he battles lingering hallucinations, especially lovely Samantha, who nursed him to health. So when Samantha washes up in his new jurisdiction, he cannot explain how his hallucinations have bled into reality.

Edgar Award-winning mystery novelist Andrew Klavan spends the first hundred pages of his newest novel spinning an intricate web of conspiracy, denial, and phantasmagoria. Then he spends the next two hundred pages squandering it. He heightens readers’ expectations through a solid premise and brief hints that he might upend genre expectations. Then he pisses his premise away and hits us with a boilerplate thriller dirty with the fingerprints of 1987.

The problems begin with first-person protagonist Dan Champion himself. He walks, talks, and thinks like second-tier Robert Mitchum antihero. In the first chapter, he hits us with this narrative fragment: “My heart was knocking at my ribs like a cop’s fist on a whorehouse door.” Though this tapers off by the final third, and he starts talking like a person, he never completely stops comporting himself like a postwar noir refugee.

When Champion finds himself confronted with a woman who cannot exist, he misses the most important clues because he fails to grasp that the investigation is really all about him. This character is completely immune to introspection. Late in the book, Champion’s part-time squeeze has to practically grab his lapels and scream at him that he needs to look inward. Until someone tells him otherwise, Champion’s world is entirely external.

Andrew Klavan
Instead of pausing to ask the right questions, Champion surrenders his badge and goes all Charles Bronson on the case. I cannot believe a career cop would make this many mistakes. If you were on the run from your fellow cops, would you go visit your old haunts downstate? Would you continue using your credit cards for gas and motels? Would you pop a hallucinogenic narcotic right before a days-long drive to an unfamiliar destination upstate?

Then, instead of unpacking the psychological depth of his premise, Klavan hits us with a story that might have seemed timely during the McMartin Preschool trial. His setup simmers with potential for the borderlines of reality, the dark side of community, and the fine line between cop and criminal. Instead, the meat of his novel is stapled together from half-digested bits of old Jimmy Cagney films, Raymond Chandler potboilers, and 19th Century white slavery myths.

Perhaps being a reviewer has jaundiced my opinion. I receive so many books, on so many topics, that I have become overeducated for this kind of novel. For instance, I cannot walk back the fact that I understand the difference between hallucination and memory. Hallucinogenic drugs do not produce a coherent narrative or unpack deep psychological meaning. Even where they have shown therapeutic merit, hallucinogens don’t produce one-to-one correlations.

I also can’t walk back the fact that I know noir is changing. Authors like Tyler Dilts and Alan Russell have pioneered a hard-boiled but introspective new mystery field I’ve dubbed the New Noir. These authors create characters who are as cynical about themselves as about the rest of the world, creating a greater field of psychological depth. By contrast, Klavan’s novel feels not just contrary, but downright regressive. History, even literary history, never runs backward.

You might have noticed that I’ve cited several movie actors: Robert Mitchum, Charles Bronson, Jimmy Cagney. Klavan, like Dashiell Hammett before him, writes both books and movies. In fairness, books bring more prestige, but Hollywood has the money. But this book just reads like a screen treatment. I shouldn’t imbue Klavan with my motivations, but perhaps he wrote this one in hopes of a future big-screen payday.

Perhaps being a reviewer has jaundiced my opinion. But I doubt it. I suspect Klavan flinched from his excellent premise because he remembered he has an established genre audience. But that audience reads this kind of literature every day. They know the boilerplates, and they expect better than sixty-year-old big-screen leftovers.

Surely a seasoned, award-winning author like Andrew Klavan must realize how tone-deaf this novel sounds. He proffers a smart, innovative premise, and does nothing with it. The product is not only ordinary, it’s a stark move backward. Mystery as a genre, and Klavan as an author, are both better than this.

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Mormon Moment and the Everlasting Prophecy

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part Six
Stephen Mansfield, The Mormonizing of America: How the Mormon Religion Became Became a Dominant Force in Politics, Entertainment, and Pop Culture

A faith with only seven million American members, and another seven million internationally, seems unlikely to sway world affairs. But the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has, in one century, gone from fringe sect to secular and spiritual powerhouse, steering national and global policy. Newsweek calls this America’s “Mormon moment.” But Stephen Mansfield repositions Mormonism as a quintessentially American movement facing a 21st Century trial.

Outsiders question Mormonism based on outliers and extreme beliefs. The Protestant fixation on Temple underwear, polygamy, and Joseph Smith’s strange appetites has colored how the larger world sees the faith for nearly 200 years. Yet Mormons themselves think these small tea in their larger faith story. To them, that resembles judging Christianity by the Inquisition, or Islam by the Great Jihad, a fixation on the past that obscures the beauty of the present.

To Mormons themselves, their faith stands on a direct, personal experience with God. Where Protestant churches have grown calcified in struggles over doctrine and orthodoxy, Latter-day Saints perceive God as a constant presence who addresses the human heart directly. This may seem on the surface like Pentecostalism. But where God, to Protestants, speaks with continuity, building on established revelation, to Mormons, God always renews and reinvents His word.

Thus, one of Mormonism’s most important tenets serves only to confuse outsiders. Mormons have no creed, no theology, no professional clergy. Instead, God speaks into every believer’s heart, constantly improving his revelation. When old revelation proves inadequate, new revelation may simply replace it: polygamy was first forbidden, then permitted, then required, and since 1890, forbidden again. Thus judging Mormonism by its history proves confounding at best.

Yet that history requires judgment in modern light. Joseph Smith, the faith’s founding prophet, emerged from a series of occult experiences and a reputation on the shady side of legality. He propounded a new scripture based on hidden plates that others may have seen, or may have had approved divinely, or may have never seen at all—documents disagree. And he had a propensity for new revelations that confirmed him, personally, as sole divine interlocutor.

Smith’s scripture posited Jews colonizing America twice, most recently around 600 BCE. This history proved tenable in the 19th Century because, like his theology, it accorded with popular ideas of the time. But his scriptural history has proven immune to archaeological evidence, linguistic verification, or genotyping; Mormon scientists tasked with corroborating Smith’s history have come away frustrated, though hopeful of new future evidence.

Such empirical challenges little bother true believers, since topography and genetics seem far away. Today’s Mormons perceive God very close, a perception reinforced by the fact that Smith and his successor, Brigham Young, bequeathed the faith a spirituality and organization that speak to unfolding material needs. Where “gentile” churches often feel fossilized, even to their firmest adherents, the LDS Church remains alive to a changing world.

Because Mormon spirituality manifests in concrete ways—fasting, mission, education, law—believers share a slate of experience that binds them to one another beyond “mere” shared belief. And because it emphasizes direct personal experience with God, not one mediated through clergy, it speaks to many converts’ thirst for spirituality. This is emphasized by the lack of codified theology, which makes mainstreaming into the established Church easy.

Mormons’ love of history, education, and genealogy give them a mutual identity. Events like the expulsions from Missouri and Illinois, religiously motivated persecutions in the mid-19th Century, and the federal invasion of Utah, feel very close to modern Mormons. Mutual tribulations bind generations in ways the well-heeled mainstream lacks. Thus the Saints, like Jews and Muslims, share something that most American Protestants lack: a sense of themselves as a people.

This spirituality, this identity, and a spirituality based on striving to emulate God on earth, result in a faith noted as much for its earthly success as for its beliefs. Though the Mormon leadership would minimize this aspect, the fact remains that LDS spirituality translates directly into secular prosperity. Mormons don’t bank on “pie in the sky when you die;” they see rewards for their piety unfold, immediately, before their eyes.

Mansfield documents the Church’s ascendence from an outsider’s perspective. Its influence, disproportionate to its size and beleaguered history, makes the Church a timely topic. Outsiders’ common mistakes make the faith terra incognita to those most influenced by Mormon power and wealth. And the challenges it will face in coming years will impact nearly everyone. Mansfield’s primer prepares believers and doubters alike for the coming upheaval.

Also by this author:
Oprah Winfrey, Stephen Mansfield, and the Spirits of the Age

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

JT Ellison's Mystery Romance Stew

J.T. Ellison, Edge of Black

Because law enforcement is heavily systematized, for good reason, and crime is often banal, mystery fiction tends toward repetition. If you’ve ever screamed at a novel, wondering why the hero can’t see the widow’s lies, that’s why. Good authors beat this curb through innovative characterization—like Charles Todd and Stef Penney. JT Ellison handles this by cribbing technique from romance, another repetitive genre, with, let’s say, predictable results.

A biological attack on the DC subway paralyzes America’s government and kills three, including a congressman. ME Samantha Owens accepted a Georgetown teaching gig to escape such drama, but the DCPD and State Department need her experience and insight. When her boyfriend goes vigilante to pursue the attacker, whom he may know from his Army hitch, Sam finds herself caught between the law she’s sworn to uphold, and America’s greater good.

Presumably, Ellison wants to court the same audience that loves authors like Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs. She uses much the same style: an alternation between wonky technical investigation, breakneck police work, and slow character exposition. But instead of creating taut, multifaceted character mysteries like Cornwell and Reichs, Ellison sprawls all over the map—literally, as the investigation caroms from DC to Denver and all points between.

I can’t identify which egregious mistakes bother me most. I began to get a sinking feeling when Sam Owens’ boyfriend, Xander, destroyed evidence and went off in pursuit of Lone Ranger justice. Does Sam, the career civil servant, recognize this vigilantism for the reckless endangerment it is? Nope, she considers it manful, assertive, and “the right thing.” When her DCPD contact is understandably angered, she stops barely short of calling him fascist.

J.T. Ellison
Likewise, supposed professionals make such novice mistakes, I suspect they misunderstood the job questionnaire. Surely an ME with disaster training knows to volunteer her services at the perimeter of a biological attack, not to the men in the Tyvek moon suits. Police tracking a high-stakes witness should ping his cell phone now, not after he calls his girlfriend. Checking a victim’s Facebook page is victimology SOP; getting blindsided a day late is inexcusable.

But perhaps the characters are distracted. They’re busy calibrating attractiveness: in each other, peers, bosses, and peripheral characters. Sam is deeply in love with Xander, but has to fend off romantic advances from her DCPD contact, Fletch. Meanwhile, Fletch seems to have crushes on his assistant, his boss, and a buxom vice cop. Shouldn’t skilled professionals in a national security crisis postpone the sexual byplay until happy hour?

Nor is it just the core ensemble. Ellison introduces new characters, not by name, action, or dialog, but by appearance. No character is permitted to speak, perform in-scene action, or advance the plot until Ellison establishes them as good-looking. No character who says or does anything in this book is less than ravishingly beautiful, man or woman, except one victim’s mousy mother and, in the final reveal, the culprit. Beauty equals virtue, evidently.

Between flashes of incipient sexcapades, Ellison cantilevers so many potential storylines into the book that she can’t resolve them all. Because it happens in an early chapter, it spoils nothing to say the DCPD pull Sam into the investigation because it appears the subway attack was targeted at the congressman alone. Tenuous prodding reveals that Peter Leighton may have sordid hobbies, unseemly connections, and a Moriarty-like double life.

Yet this, and several other byzantine subplots, disappear from the story for dozens of pages at once. Ellison has so many balls that she can’t juggle them together, and I kept forgetting she’d introduced something important. Then the investigation happens off-stage. Ellison introduces a possible serial rapist voyeur druggie congressman, then sends his DNA to a lab, and in the denouement, has her cop character basically shrug and say, “That was a red herring.”


Ellison’s press biography claims she has worked with police, FBI, and other agencies to ensure the realism of her stories. After reading the slipshod techniques and outright illegalities of this story, I suspect she may have law officers asking to have their names redacted from her acknowledgments page. Her theatrics belong in a Vin Diesel movie, not in a police procedural with aspirations of verisimilitude.

This is not a serious novel. This is a mixed-genre slumgullion to fall asleep under on a beach or on a plane. Anybody who reads mysteries seriously will recognize it for a Rube Goldberg narrative, which might have worked as a parody, but is too earnest for its own good.