A Guide To Reviewing
Most authors who write crime fiction are also avid readers of the genre. Books come to me in the usual ways—review copies, manuscripts, handed on by someone, or bought in a bookstore. I don’t write a lot of book reviews. You write a bad one and you make an enemy for life. You write a good one and everyone assumes it is because I know the author or he has old photographs of you in a compromising position with a zoo animal. For the record, I don’t know Eoin Colfer, and I can be reasonably certain he’s never heard of me.
Inevitably any book review is as much about the reading taste of the reviewer as it is about the book under review. Reviewers, in my opinion, set out the kind of checklist of books in a genre they read, admire, dislike, and by the lack of inclusion, the books they ignore. Only then can a reader have some idea whether they agree with the checklist can they have any confidence in the review.
In this review, I will do three things: First, I will tell you a little about the author. Second, I will give a brief summary of the book. Lastly is my checklist that lets you inside my mindset about how I go about assessing crime fiction. You can also think of my checklist as a guide as to the categories of crime fiction that I read.
Plugged by Eoin Colfer (2011) was handed on to me with a recommendation to read. The author is a best selling author of a children’s book series, titled Artemis Fowl. He was also chosen to finish Douglas Adam’s Hitchhikers Guide to Galaxy series. Some authors are like natural born athletes. Michael Jordan, the sensational basketball player, quit basketball to play professional baseball. His decision to leave basketball was to honor the dream of his father who wanted him to play professional baseball. Jordan returned to basketball after one year.
In Jordan’s year in another highly demanding sport Wikipedia sums up his minor league career: “In 1994, Jordan played for the Birmingham Barons, a Double-A minor league affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, batting .202 with three home runs, 51 runs batted in, 30 stolen bases, and 11 errors.”
It would be fair to say that Eloin Colfer has proven himself a star in children’s books, science fiction and crime fiction. He’s a natural born storyteller and Plugged displays this gift on every page. He has talent for metaphor, scene setting, instilling a sense of suspense and danger. If Plugged were a seashell and you pressed against your ear, you’d hear echoes of the violence found in the films like Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, and in the high octane novels Boombproof by Michael Robotham and Drive by James Sallis.
The basic story revolves around ex-Irish peacekeeping soldier Sergeant Daniel McEvoy who has psychological issues following two tours of duty in the Middle East. McEvoy’s mother is an American, so he heads for New York and finds a job as a doorman in a downscale dive in New Jersey. After a sleazy New Jersey lawyer assaults one of the hot hostesses, McEvoy pulls the lawyer into the backroom. There is a confrontation. McEvoy has had a bunk-buddy relationship with the hostess. When the hostess ends up with a bullet in the forehead in the club’s parking lot, he is a suspect. The two black women detectives working the murder investigation find themselves inside mafia territory. One bent cop partners with the other one who is a tougher than a rogue water buffalo in a rice paddy teaming with crocodiles. A ghost named Zeb buzzes around inside McEvoy’s head like a firefly inside a Halloween pumpkin whispering one-liners and guiding him on what do once he is on the run.
The lead character in any series needs a psychological profile; one that makes sense in viewing his actions (or inactions). McEvoy suffers from an excess of ‘empathy’ and this leads him to wish to ‘protect’ a number of crazy, arrogant, doomed people who have no problem putting him in the cross-hairs of the evil ones.
There were a couple of clunkers that took me out of the story and reminded me that I was reading fiction. McEvoy has hidden away in the wall of his apartment fifty thousand dollars in cash. He’s plastered it into the wall. He breaks the wall, takes his stash and hides bundle of money on his person (no unsightly bulge apparently), and later stuffs fifty grand down the crack in the backseat of a police car while the woman detective is driving. Apparently she doesn’t notice his digging like a squirrel burying an acorn in the backseat. The chances of all of that cash were hundred-dollar-notes is remote (unless it’s explained that he kept the size and weight of the stash in mind). Fifty grand is a lot of volume to conceal. Besides, McEvoy is a small timer, a doorman at a rundown club. He’d have a fair number of tens and twenties and fifties in the stash. Also left unexplained as to why he’s working for peanuts on the door of a sleazy nightclub when he has enough stashed away to look for better alternatives.
The other example of this just doesn’t fit the world of reality is when McEvoy assembles a rifle and, at some distance, shoots one detective in the shoulder just before she’s about to execute her partner. That partner who has a renewed lease on life, fires six rounds at close range into the wounded detective’s midsection from a couple of feet away. The detective with seven bullets in her body is later able to climb out of the trunk of a car and go for help.
These aren’t the kind of questions you want a reader to be thinking about as they pull him/her out of the story, and raise some credibility issues. That is, if the book is meant to be ‘reality’ based as opposed to ‘Pulp Fiction’ based where ‘reality’ is an annoying artifact to be discarded when the book is opened. Eoin Colfer straddles these two crime worlds. Sooner a later, an author has to choose between them or run the risk of losing readers who want to buy into one or the other, but not the two conflicting approaches together.
I have a checklist when I buy and read crime fiction. I have a couple of points to consider before going to the categories. It is rare to have a crime novel stay solely within the boundaries of a single category. There is bound to be overlap. In reviewing Plugged, I’ve looked for evidence of a category and let you know what I’ve found as that might be useful to you as a reader especially if you like a particular category more than others. You can have literary/comic novels, or cross-cultural novels that take you down the rabbit hole and make you feel like you are inside the story. You will note that I stay away from ‘hard-boiled’ and ‘noir’ in the categories. These terms are more often used to describe the nature of moods or atmosphere that give a haunting edge of a crime novel. Plugged has some brush strokes that suggest hard-boiled, but the constant, non-sense humor, though black at times, eliminates the possibility of noir.
1. Literary Crime Fiction. The use of the language, the development of characters, the detailed descriptions of place, person, events, emotions, and relationships which often expand like continent size in a perfectly created world. Literary crime fiction often appeals to and challenges the intellect. Roberto Bolano’s 2666 is a good example of a literary crime novel. You must be in the mood for epic descriptions of the context in which police, criminals, tourists, corporations, killers, torturers, sadists, hookers catalog their memories, miseries, and mortality. Other literary crime writers are: Umberto Eco‘s The Name of the Rose, John Le Carrie’s A Murder of Quality, and Charles McCarry’s Tears of Autumn. Plugged isn’t literary crime fiction. If that is your novel of choice, move along, there’s nothing for you to see here, sir.
2. Cross-Cultural Novels. The crime fiction novel over the past decade or so has been a vehicle to explore cultural identity, language, history, psychological and religious variations found in different regions around the world. The reader buys this type of novel to better understand the mindset of people living in places like Thailand (John Burdett, Timothy Hallinan), Laos (Colin Cotterill), Iceland (Quentin Bates), Turkey (Barbara Nadel), Norway (Jo Nesbø), The West Bank (Matt Rees), France (Fred Vargas, Pierre Lemaitre, Cara Black), or Finland (James Thompson). These crime fiction books offer cross-cultural insights into law enforcement and social and power arrangements, the story reveals an insider/outsider perspective as often a foreigner is caught up in a cultural no man’s land looking for a way out. These countries and authors represent the tip of a large cultural crime novel iceberg. The difference between Pulp Fiction or Drive and the crime fiction of Manuel Vázquez Montalbán (who died in Bangkok ten years ago today: 18 October 2003) is the difference between an iceberg and iceberg lettuce. Plugged offers little cross-cultural insight other than some scenes where he has communication trouble leading to understandings with the wise guy class of New Yorkers. If you are looking for a cultural enlightenment, Plugged doesn’t take you diving down the base of the iceberg to explore what is there.
3. The Rabbit hole. Occasionally there is a crime novel that pulls you down the Alice and Wonderland rabbit hole by the back of your neck and you forget that you are reading a novel. You become emotionally involved and part of the story. You see and hear the characters who are alive and you are moving among them. You identify with the characters (or some of them). Reading fiction is an exercise in emotional identification and empathy. This is an important reason for many readers to read a novel. Not every reader would agree what combination of elements in the story, writing, plot and characters reaches a critical mass and before you know you’ve slid down the rabbit hole and you are inside the world of the book. I liked Plugged. But I was always conscious that I was reading a cleverly written book. Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train is a journey down the rabbit hole into a world of sociopaths. Or Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino is another example.
4. Comic Crime Fiction. Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice is a good example of comic crime fiction. Pynchon is another Michael Jordan player who switched from literary to crime fiction for this book. Plugged has a great deal of humor. Especially in the dialogue. The problem with humor is a bit like hot chili powder in the tom yum gung. At some point your eyes tear up and your mouth explodes into flames. An example of how humor worked in a crime novel was Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. This novel sticks in my mind. I’ve read it several times. And for a good reason. To see how Lethem’s mind created such live, rich and real characters rooted in their New York neighborhood. An essential part of the Motherless Brooklyn’s central character named Lionel and his mental condition. Lionel ‘suffers’ from Tourette syndrome (to coin a phrase from an aged gangster in the story). The consequences of that mental suffering were seamlessly woven into the character and the story. Halfway through Plugged I felt that I’d been to a marathon comedy club on the lower East Side. Every comic who came out had non-stop funny lines but at the end of the night, I didn’t feel I really knew that much about the characters. We reveal through humor; we also hide with humor. In a crime novel some hard choices are required to be made: is the story one, long send up or is comedy a relief among the slaughter and mayhem the central character finds himself in? Most of the dialogue are one-liners. The banter is clever, and it is fun. The question is whether banter as the central communication device between the characters is a bit like Henny Youngman on a perpetual loop. If you’ve been in a Bangkok bar, you hear this back and forth frequently. It is an easy way of distancing yourself emotionally. But the tom yum gung could have been served with some rice now and again to vary the experience. If I’d ordered Plugged off the comic menu, I’d have sent it back to the kitchen.
5. Pyrotechnics/Adventure. In the Fight Club men test themselves. In Richard Stark’s iconic Parker novels, Parker tears through a life flanked with guns, knives, explosives, and does business with those who may betray him, hurt him, kill him. These type of novels are stories of how men establish their manhood, illustrate their tolerance for pain. In the dark horizon of such novels there is no remedy for angst, no cure for pain, but plenty of proof we occupy a bleak world without meaning or purpose. Or alternatively, we know that our collective history is a bone yard filled with individual and collective violence. Crime fiction in this category cover the grounds of greed, hatred, and revenge, rolling out an assortment of bad tempered knuckle draggers whose vocabulary substitutes bullets for full stops to end sentences in arguments they can’t otherwise win. This is the action stuff that frequently makes it on to the bestseller list. People apparently love to read about violence, violent men and women, the mechanics of violence, the aftermath of murder with the bodies and autopsy chambers. Many readers say they don’t read such books. But the weight of money spent on books shows either that is a lie or the wrong people are being interviewed.
In Plugged McEvoy’s life is in constant jeopardy like a man chased down the side of a mountain by a grizzly bear. He must be clever in order to survive in an underworld where a lot of people want him dead. There are many chances for him to die. Each time he finds a way to avoid his fate. Once you ride that rollercoaster, you feel your stomach at the back of your throat as if it is an exit door. This is where Plugged excels. It is fast-paced like a man running through a Cambodian minefield we can’t stop ourselves from watching whether he will make it to end. Once he makes it to end, your heart is pounding. And you know in your bones, he’s going to turn around, catch his breath and run back again.
I suspect this to be the case as Eoin Colfer has a new crime fiction novel called Screwed, featuring McEvoy. Plugged makes me very curious about Artemis Fowl, the children’s book series that is an international best seller. Children growing up on that popular series have McEvoy waiting for them upon graduation into adulthood. No question that McEvoy is a creative, talented writer who can move between genre categories. I suspect, over time, he will smooth and polish the rough edges that might cause some reader to bleed out interest about half way through the book. Back to Michael Jordan for a closing: Eoin Colfer has an incredible fastball pitch but he needs some work on his change up. I’d certainly buy a ticket any time he’s in the game. And it seems that Colfer’s McEvoy is back on the mound, winding up in a new novel titled Screwed.