Thursday, November 25, 2004

Dully Typical

Black Maps, Peter Spiegelman, Read by Scott Brick, Books on Tape, Inc., 2003

This is the kind of so-called mystery I dislike intensely. In fact, it's not what might classically be called a mystery, but more a detective story. The criminal, at least one of them, is known fairly early in the book; there are virtually no red herrings to confuse us; and the whole story is more about the solver of the puzzle than the puzzle itself.

What kind of a man is at the heart of Black Maps?

Typical boilerplate Hollywood detective. He is a solitary, brooding widower. Three years ago his wife was killed by the detective story solve-all — the serial killer. Our hero, John March, then shoots the man dead, but the murder of his wife is not only a bit pat (he leaves fingerprints, tire tracks, and a confession after the killing), it's no more than a plot point, a hook on which to hang our character's moodiness. This stereotypical past is given to us throughout the book in dribs and drabs, but it's really just adding window dressing details to what we already can figure out.

Wha is unusual about our hero is that he spent some time as a trader/banker on Wall Street — just like the author, Peter Spiegelman. And it's that kind of obviously over-burnished, projected authorial self-image that drives this story, like an extended daydream in which you kick the asses of all your enemies. It's almost embarrassing to read.

When March does his financial investigating, the book is as dull as accounting investigations sounds. It's a lot of paperwork of the kind that makes you understand why the Monty Python gang made fun of chartered accountancy. When he tells other parts of the stories, like rousting teenage hoodlums in the park or flirting with his upstairs neighbor or grieving his dead wife, the storytelling is perfunctorily adequate, though this is where you'll find Spiegelman's best work. He lovingly tells these daydreams. When the writing should be tense and exciting, it is, however, not particularly either.

The case March investigates involves a rich financial type, Rick Piero, who is being blackmailed due to some shady dealings in his past. The man he was once involved with in these transactions, Gerard Nassouli, is a criminal in hiding, a mastermind of psychological manipulation and a blackmailer supreme. And so on and so forth. The investigation drags on and on painfully. The author makes the ins and outs of shady financial dealings easy to understand, but that's because he clearly excels in simplistic writing.

If there is a description of a person (and Black Maps seems to obsessively catalog the clothing everyone is wearing in every single scene; we are treated to lengthy descriptions of suits, slacks, dresses, shoes, the kind of clothing fetishization that does little to advance the plot and less to illuminate characters or flesh out a scene), a place, or a scene, Spiegelman does it in exactly the most obvious terms. There are no unusual words, no suggestive poetic license invoked, no linguistic choices that render a scene striking or poignant. Spiegelman has subsituted "observant" details of garments for real powers of observation.

Oh, for the return of ratiocination where the observer elicits information about the person other than the obvious, that their cuffs were worn which meant they did this or that, the fraying at their collar meaning so forth, a scuff of mud leading to whatnot. Instead, we learn that rich people wear nice clothing. That's a grand new piece of information I will use from here on out in my daily people watching.

Every element of the story is presented in such a way that you know even the smallest detail is going to crop up again. There are almost invisible italics througout the novel. Upon learning that the client's wife used to take amateur photos of models, it is no surprise when our hero goes to the old office of Nassouli's company and sees a stack of photos that one of hers is in the pile. Aha! To paraphrase an old Young Ones quote, I don't mean to suggest that this book was predictable, but there are as yet undiscovered tribes in the Amazon rainforest who knew how each twist would happen.

When a new neighbor moves into John's building, my immediate suspicion was that this will be a young, single woman, the love interest. When she is physically introduced on disc two, it is clear from the moment John meets Jane Lu that they will end up in bed together. And of course, they do. When the fact is inserted that she is an accomplished kickboxer, my immediate thought was: well that will certainly come in handy at the climactic moment of the book when John and Jane's lives will be threatened by the real killer. It is Jane herself who renders the fatal kick that not only rescues her and John, but sends the dastardly villain through a sliding glass door and over a balcony. A more trite ending I couldn't have imagined.

Scott Brick, the reader, who has the kind of name tough guy detectives are given in books even worse than this one, does his best with what he's given. His soft Long Island accent is servicable enough to gently nudge into a variety of New York tones from Brooklyn to upper crust Manhattanite. It's the one bright spot in Black Maps, though the future is surely dark for the rest of us. Spiegelman's book (like his Wall Street career) was lucrative enough to mean that there will be future John March books coming down the pike. Oy ve.

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