Competent. Interesting word. A sort of back-handed compliment. Solid. Serves its purpose. Gets the job done, but lacks the wow factor. No shame in being competent these days, but it isn’t exactly the type of praise we are looking for now is it?
What’s behind all this musing? No, it isn’t my own writing, which I am not sure quite even gets to competent – derivative is probably a better term, but rather my recent reading of The Perfect Assassin by Ward Larsen. Publishers Weekly has this to say about this recently released spy thriller from Oceanview publishing:
Larsen’s competent debut has many of the right ingredients for a successful spy thriller: plenty of action, technical detail that would do Tom Clancy proud, and a hero with almost superhuman skills . . . What’s missing is that no character, except for Palmer, has an inner life.
As a person who can’t really comprehend creating all the things that must go into writing a novel of any kind (plot, setting, dialog, characters, etc.) much less a competent one, I have a hard time sniffing at competence. But in the end I think PW is right. Larsen has assembled an interesting set of ingredients, but the book never quite manages to get beyond its genre limitations.
As long as I am stealing PW material, allow me to use their plot description:
When Christine Palmer, an American doctor sailing solo across the Atlantic, retrieves the almost lifeless body of David Slaton in the middle of the ocean, Slaton commandeers her small boat and demands she deliver him to England. A member of Kidon (Mossad’s special assassination team), Slaton is the sole survivor of a ship that sank with a super-secret cargo-a pair of unaccounted for nuclear weapons. Double agents within Mossad want to kill Slaton before he uncovers their convoluted plot to use the weapons to undermine Israel’s international support. Needless to say, they’re soon after Palmer as well.
The book’s beginning is one of its strengths. The plot gets off to an interesting start as Larsen keeps the reader focused on the mystery of the stranger plucked from the ocean and the events behind his near death. Larsen meticulously plots out the details of Slaton’s spy craft and survival tactics. There is a nice blend of action, backstory, and intrigue.
What keeps the story in the realm of merely competent, however, is the lack of character depth and a plot that is just a little to formulaic. I realize that the title is “The Perfect Assassin” but Slaton is almost too perfect. You never really get the sense that the lead character is in any real danger of failing. And his opponents are either a little too hazy (the Mossad insiders carrying out the attacks) or a little too cardboard (Ehud Zak). Because of all of this, I wasn’t really all that invested in Slaton as a character. There wasn’t anyone you really wanted to win or anyone you really enjoyed hating. It as if Larsen worked so hard at plotting out the details that he forget to gives us a deeper sense of the characters personalities, motivations, and lives.
Perhaps because I had recently read a thriller with a similar “crazed ideologues deceptively attempt to use violence and terrorism to manipulate international politics” theme, I also found the later half of the book a little paint-by-numbers. The whole the good guys are really the bad guys thing, or even the rogue spy group manipulating politics, slant just wasn’t that interesting. This is just a Middle Eastern version of the whole scorpions in a bottle Cold War argument. Not only do I find it unpersuasive historically, I find it uninteresting in fiction. Cycle of violence blah blah blah.
I am certainly not one to complain about happy endings, and I don’t want to spoil this one for those who want to read the book, but let me just say that things ended up a little too neat and tidy. And that is a reflection of the larger issue: the story never stops to take a deeper look or to offer an unique perspective. Oh sure, there are a few twists and turns but these are really technical details not real surprises. Too many loose ends perfectly tied up with a bow makes the ending seem corny. The lack of depth in the characters accentuates the overly neat ending.
Larsen in a sense suffers from the expectations he set for himself in the first half of the book. The strong start, the interesting story line, the technical details, written by an author with actual combat experience raised expectations rather high. It really isn’t all that surprising that this first time novelist didn’t quite meet those expectations. The good news is that Larsen has piqued enough interest with The Perfect Assassin to warrant hope that he can improve with his next book.
With all of that said, we are still left with that word: competent. Given the amount of pure dreck out there these days, competent is worth something. And The Perfect Assassin is an entertaining, if somewhat flawed, spy thriller. If you are looking for something to read on a long flight, on the beach, or on a cold and gray afternoon, you could do a lot worse. Those who enjoy thrillers with action and lots of details will enjoy this one. But here’s hoping Larsens kicks it up a notch or two next time.