Not all that surprisingly given my rack record on these things, I have not produced the promised review of The Reluctant Fundamentalist. I am close, but want to try and bring a little more clarity to my thinking and writing before I post on it.
In lieu of this, I am sure, heavily anticipated review allow me to offer something a little different. There have been a number of debates and discussions – some quite heated – on book blogs regarding the potential conflict of interest involved in getting free books. There are a lot of sides to this debate and its implications. You have some professional critics slamming blogs as ignorant gossip sites kissing up to each other. You have some lit blogs standing up for the medium. But you also have some bloggers expressing a great deal of concern that blogs have been co-opted into becoming unpaid marketers and publicists just by the allure of free books and recognition.
I don’t intend to get into a lengthy discussion of the issue here, but I wanted to take a look at this idea through the lens of some reviews of the same book. While doing some background surfing on the recently released
Ladykiller by Lawrence Light and Meredith Anthony I was struck by the wide divergence of opinions on this book. What follows is sampling of reviews and then a discussion of both my take on the book itself, the reviews, and the issue of free books.
Let’s take a look at the reviews and start with the “professionals” at Publishers Weekly:
An improbable plot and overheated prose (“The killer strode through the New York night, its brisk, crystal air vibrating with electric bloodlust”) weigh down Light and Anthony’s serial-killer cat-and-mouse tale, set in early 1990s New York City. After the murderer, dubbed the Ladykiller by the press, has claimed four victims (women of vastly different backgrounds shot through the right eye), the authorities create a special police task force. When the killer claims a fifth victim, Reuben Silver, a counselor at the West Side Crisis Center, Det. Dave Dillon investigates. At the crisis center, Dillon meets another counselor, Megan Morrison, who soon distracts him from his job even as the killings continue. The revelation of the killer’s identity early on removes much of the suspense, while a last-minute twist is both unconvincing and difficult to reconcile with earlier parts of the book.
Not real promising, but perhaps that is just a matter of taste. Let’s find a review a little closer to the “man on the street perspective”; someone who just wants an entertaining read. Say a blogger who posts reviews on Amazon. Here is Terry South of Quality Reviews:
Ladykiller is an intriguing, compelling and suspenseful crime novel packed with enticing twists and turns to keep you on the edge. The authors have created a powerful thriller that tantalizes with a sense of suspense and a steady flow of action. The characters are believable, finely developed and engaging. Ladykiller is superbly crafted with vivid detail that draws you into the story.
An astounding 5 stars!
Different take than PW, no? I know what you are thinking. See, you say, this is just an uncritical blogger/Amazon reviewer who gets free books from publicists and then praises every book to the hilt. This is why you can’t trust Amazon. Hold that thought, because while I agree with the sentiment to some degree, I also think it isn’t quite fair.
Let’s look at something along the same lines, the blurbs:
â€œLight & Anthony have created a New
York thriller as dark and dangerous and surprising as the city itself. Ladykiller is a tension filled
story that moves as fast as lighting and is just as electrifying.â€
“Hard, fast, uncompromising — a truly exceptional crime novel.”
Not having read the work of either Rose or Child I suppose I shouldn’t allow the blurbs to set my expectations too much, but that is pretty high praise. So, assuming the integrity of Rose and Child, perhaps Ladykiller is just a polarizing work – some people love it others find it flawed.
But let me note one last review, this one from Mystery Book Reviews:
There are a couple of plot points that tend to weaken the overall story. The crimes are set in 1991 where the NYPD seemingly have limited forensic skills (at least compared with what ostensibly is the norm today). This leaves the authors with the freedom to have the killer walk away from the crime scene leaving minimal evidence to be found by the authorities. Murders of this nature would seem to leave an abundance of clues and setting the book in the present day would require a killer that was far more careful. Furthermore, it seems highly improbable that one would calmly stare at their killer, someone who was pointing a gun just a few inches from their right eye, even if they knew them. Maybe once or twice, but some 6 or 7 people are ultimately killed in this way in Ladykiller. It’s simply not credible.
The authors reveal the identity of the Ladykiller early in the book which removes a huge element of suspense from the story. Typically in a book with a known killer, the plot becomes a police procedural. But not in this case: there is nothing terribly methodical about the way Dillon handles his investigation. Thus to keep the reader’s interest, what follows is a series of unexpected twists and turns that are hit-and-miss; some work within the context of the plot, some don’t. Fortunately, the ending works, and provides an element of surprise that will have the reader thumbing back through the pages to see how they missed anticipating this startling conclusion.
Here we have a nice balanced discussion that lands somewhere between “An astounding 5 stars!” and “improbable plot and overheated prose.”
So what does all of this tell us? Well, I think it tells us that your enjoyment of Ladykiller might depend heavily on your taste. What did I think of the book? I would put myself in the Mystery Book Review camp or maybe even leaning a little toward PW.
Yes, the prose can be overheated at times and the plot is a little messy and implausible. But I think the authors were trying to capture a time and place with the characters; trying to show the reader what it might be like inside the community of the underbelly of NYC. You have the criminals, the lowlifes, the cops, and the social workers all interacting in this dark and strange world. I am not sure it all holds together but there are some interesting characters. I thought it was interesting how Nita began to lose control when the killings went from clean and neat to chaotic and messy. I also thought Ace was an interesting character; a desperately insecure kid who wanted to be a killer but was really a coward enthralled by a controlling woman.
But because of all these characters, and the author’s attempts to flush them out, there are a lot of loose threads. Does it matter that Dillon’s colleague on the task force has a crush on him? Is it important that we get to know Dave’s mom? Or that his dad cheated on his mom, was about to be exposed for some minor ethical violations and killed himself? The authors work hard at trying to describe their character’s lives and background but it doesn’t always help the story.
Ladykiller requires that you suspend your disbelief and enjoy the atmospherics and characters. If you’re looking for a tight, perfectly plausible plot you will be disappointed. It is sort of like a television drama, if you expect it to make perfect sense and be highly realistic in all facets then you’re missing the point. If, on the other hand, you just enjoy edgy thrillers with plenty of twists and turns I would guess you will enjoy it.
One thing I don’t think this little exercises can tell us is that getting free books corrupts bloggers. Can you always trust a blurb? Of course not. Can bloggers and Amazon reviewers get carried away in their praise? Yup. But that doesn’t mean one can’t free books from publicists and write honest balanced reviews. If you want to use the internet to find books you might enjoy, you need to find sources you trust and whose taste match your own. It helps to read a variety of perspectives. Pretty basic stuff I know, but true nevertheless.