Monday, August 10, 2015

Further Adventures of James Bond, MD

Stacy Childs with David Niall Wilson, Block 10: a Novel

Former Olympic downhill skier Luke Cooper thought he’d lost everything when a globally televised wipeout shattered his body. French physician Henri de Salvo did more than heal Luke’s body; he revitalized Luke’s spirit. Now a doctor himself, Luke has returned to France to join his mentor’s charitable clinic. But de Salvo’s philanthropic fa├žade conceals dark secrets, which powerful, connected individuals might kill to uncover… or bury. Luke finds himself in someone’s crosshairs. The first question is, whose?

Dr. Stacy Childs, MD, apparently hopes to claim similar territory to Robin Cook, American surgeon turned thriller writer. Like Cook, Childs melds cutting-edge medical research with the oldest secrets powerful men vigorously conceal. Unfortunately, like Cook, he lards an otherwise promising story with obvious personal wish fulfillment. Childs’ protagonist has such incisive medical insight, athletic accomplishment, and sexual prowess, it’s tough to avoid thinking Dr. Childs is projecting his personal aspirations through a rose-colored lens.

I knew I was in for a bad ride when a "staggeringly beautiful" but conveniently nameless woman, without asking first, undresses and sexually ravishes our protagonist before page 30. This just pages after a massive state-sponsored beating, including multiple kidney punches. That Cooper can walk, much less have sex, defies likelihood. Childs rushes so furiously to name-check standard James Bond tropes that he doesn't bother to first make sure we actually care about his character.

Dr. Stacy Childs, MD
Childs’ medical grounding has solid foundation. Almost immediately after arriving, Luke discovers that his mentor’s charitable clinic conceals a top-secret facility, almost science fictional in its technological advancement, conducting mind-bending experimental medicine, for those who can afford it. But Dr. de Salvo’s motivations aren’t entirely humanitarian. De Salvo might be skirting medical ethics in pursuing salvation. He’s certainly experimenting on human subjects. His success justifies further risk-taking, and Luke might be an experimenter, or getting experimented upon.

This pitches Luke into terrible conflicts. Though Dr. de Salvo’s motivations make him squirm, the forces arrayed against de Salvo aren’t much better. State-based thugs, criminal syndicates, and international terrorists want what this clinic produces. Some want to silence de Salvo’s discoveries; others want to steal and misuse them. And it’s impossible for Luke to identify who really deserves his trust. He’s forced to step outside the order, playing both sides against the middle, to discover the truth.

Okay, so: the raw thumbnail of Childs’ story concept sounds exciting. I wanted to like Childs’ narrative, and persevered long after his prose became discouragingly stereotyped. Like Robin Cook or Michael Palmer, his medical specificity lends his narrative a veneer of realistic, even educational, heft. But like them, Childs’ realism dresses stories that veer into extravaganzas of Dan Brown-ish implausibility. Their mysteries often spiral uncontrollably, presenting doctor heroes who are half Quincy, half Charles Bronson.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. Both Cook and Palmer produced interesting thrillers grounded in pioneering medical science. Especially in their early careers, their writing combined hard science with human characters. But they quickly depleted the potential in their subjects, and wandered into the ridiculous: Cook became increasingly B-movie science fictional, while Palmer’s later novels generally featured interchangeable pistol-packin’ doctors. Childs apparently opts to skip over the early, innovative career, and race straight into late stage silliness.

It’s tough to determine whether Childs, or ghost writer David Niall Wilson, bears greater responsibility for this. This is only Childs’ second novel; Wilson has written or ghost-written several novels and short stories, heavily in the supernatural thriller genre. Perhaps the grizzled old-hand tone underlying this story represents Wilson’s professional boredom, or his impatience with Childs’ reality-based story. Either way, it’s impossible to lump culpability for this story’s well-worn texture onto only one author’s shoulders.

That says nothing about the book design itself. I’ve learned there’s a correlation between how visually pleasing a physical book is, and how aesthetically pleasing I’ll find its contents. Indie publishers which take time to design a book’s appearance generally also take time to fully edit and bolster the text. Indie publishers which send me books, like this one, with unpleasant blocky text, narrow margins, and chunky binding, generally care little for the text either.

Basically, I wanted to like this book better. I tried to like this book. But the author kept getting between me and the story, spotlighting the nakedly recycled tropes, authorial wish fulfillment, and Bruce Wayne-ish protagonist. The more I set this book down, the harder it became to pick it back up again. At some point, I realized I hadn’t read any more in three days. That, I realized, is everything you’ll need to know.

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