Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Conspiring to Bore You

The Conspiracy Club, by Jonathan Kellerman, Read by Rob Kahn, Books on Tape, 2003

There are by far too damn many books/movies/short stories/pop music/trivia-based toilet paper based on the dubious concept of serial killers. There are likewise far too many books/movies/fad diets/etc./ad nauseum featuring youngish widowers tormented by the deaths of their spouses. The single biggest twist in Jonathan Kellerman’s The Conspiracy Club is that the dead spouse isn’t actually a spouse, just a really good live-in girlfriend who was perhaps only months, nay, weeks away from being a fiancée; that’s about it. The single murder, so abhorrent in Dostoyevsky or even Agatha Christie, has become so debased by American shoot ‘em ups that such villainy barely registers more than a portion of a chapter — a short chapter, at that. And so we must have these serial killers. Of course too, the murderers in these works never just go around and kill and sneak off in the night, no they have to creatively mangle their victims, then leave hints and clues, play games with people.

And it almost goes without saying that when you have one of these isolated, dark-cloud surrounded but handsome and talented protagonists, it is discretionary whether or not the spectral spouse actually died at the hands of the serial killer, but we should lean toward the affirmative. What is not optional for the author is the presence, ultimately, of a perky young woman who will try to break our hero out of his shell. Since this (usually) sex-goddess-slash-nurse-of-broken hearts-type exists in a thriller, no less, this Icebreaker Girl is going to have to double up in the dual role of Damsel in Distress. Angela is her name herein, but really, it could have been Phoebe or Clarissa or Beelzebub for all that it matters.

I might be less hard on the book if I hadn’t read the back of the cover which goes like this:

A plot containing a mad serial killer who communicates in a series of cryptic clues, baffling police and protagonist alike, is not one of the world’s most original stories. Yet, in the able hands of Jonathan Kellerman, it takes on new life, and proves to be as exhilarating and spine-tingling as the plots of Kellerman’s other gripping novels.

This reads, purely and simply, like the worst kind of examples you sometimes see in those “How to Sell Your Manuscript Even If You Suck” manuals, the promise you’re supposed to stay away from. Even though this material was shopworn, I can magically make it compelling through my alchemical ability to turn shit to gold. This is hardly excusable jacket copy for a nobody pulp writer with exactly zero influence on the publisher, but Kellerman has hit the New York Times top slot often enough with his best selling series of psychologist detective books featuring Alex Delaware that he ought to be able to get some quality work on his books.

Alas, this might be the case if Kellerman were himself some kind of quality writer or at least capable of recognizing quality writing, but, as has baffled me before with the dregs of the Top Ten lists, The Conspiracy Club is just awful with no redemption. This novel was filled with not only clichés so shopworn as to have approached near-iconography, but with stock characters like those mentioned above, as well as the gruff no-nonsense detective, the red herring suspicious dude, and the avuncular wise old man — only in this case there are about seven of those. There was the big showdown between the hero and the villain, the clues that appear to point one way but when seen in another light don’t, the fabled decisive moment summed up as “the cops just don’t understand; I’ll do it myself,” and the last minute salvation.

Some of this, perhaps even all of it, might be capable of being excused if couched in scintillating prose or paced with breathless haste or sketched in the bleakest of contrasts, but Kellerman hacks out his prose like a first year mortician plying a dull scalpel.

Clinically, when we are told of our hero’s misery after the death of his first girlfriend, we are let in on the fact that he “voided without relief.” Now that’s miserable, no? Kellerman is perhaps too enthralled to his medical jargon to reallly sock it to us. Or consider these two sex related tidbits.

The first: “A soft white sweater caused Jeremy to notice her breasts.” Really. No kidding. My mind needed a good solid scrub in some Henry Miller after that ridiculous phrasing. When Dr. Jeremy Carrier (that’s our hero, but, really, do you care? Me either) finally scores for the first time with this Angela girl he’s been dating, here’s how Kellerman delivers it:

She emerged from the bathroom wearing a long green robe, silk, or something like it. Sat next to him, drank wine, sidled closer, dimmed the lights. They began kissing deeply, moments later her robe fell open and Jeremy was inside her. Being there brought him no tremor of triumph, on the contrary he felt a cold wave of letdown….She tightened her pelvic vise.

Whew. That’s just….gosh…painful, no? Pelvic vise?

After the book’s rather anti-climactic climax, the summary of the whole story is cheaply managed by a newspaper citation, tidying it all up for us. Ho-hum and predictable. It’s what a lazy writer does when he’s just ready to get it all over with — or a bored writer. If you think writing that ending must have been tiresome, try reading it. Hell, try even listening to it. And just so we’re not all bummed out by the faceless, nameless nobodies getting sliced and diced by a serial killer, there’s the snuck-in, meant-to-be uplifting tale of a patient with leukemia beating the odds. Hurrah. So human, after all the death.

Reader Rob Kahn is wasted on this material, his vocal inflections, deeper and accented when need be, surprisingly spot-on regardless of whether he’s impersonating an older black man or a retired Welsh copper. In fact, the whole production was a waste. Wouldn’t you have rather had all the trees they cut down in making the print run of this no doubt mass produced turd? I know I would.

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