Tuesday, May 09, 2006

I Suspect Boredom

Suspicion of Rage, Barbara Parker, Read by William Dufris, BBC Audiobooks America, 2005

I’m not generally the biggest fan of novel series with formulaic titles that identify the train at a glance. For the most part, they’re genre fiction featuring recurring characters who have more adventures and get involved in more crimes than would be good for their health. There are a lot of detectives, private and in the police departments around the world, who get shitty murder cases or shitty attempted murder cases without anything in particular happening to them even remotely dramatic.

Yet these series would have us believe that there are individuals out there living lives of high excitement, their calendar just one string of life-threatening scenario after another.

Because Barbara Parker has this series going with all these ‘Suspicion of’ titles, this one, featuring her recurring lawyer characters of Anthony Quintana and Gail Connor, had to have the brand name. Only there’s one small problem. Suspicion of Rage has no mystery involved that uses any kind of suspicion that someone might have succumbed to rage or have rage issues. People get angry, true, but there’s never any question about it, never any suspicion, just proof.

That’s a bad thing, when a novelist traps herself into some kind of routine like that and shoehorns her latest into that self-same schtick. And there’s pretty much no big mystery throughout the book, so it’s not even one of their classic crime stories. Instead, Suspicion of Rage is a kind of political thriller.

With the death of the Soviet Union, the whole cold war spy story has undergone some transformations. Many purveyors have moved on to Islamic terrorist groups, breakaway factionalists, and other such fringe cloak and dagger groups. Others have moved to retro-tinged historical pieces. Parker realized there was a good thing still going on among the Cuban community and sets this novel in one of the last communist nations going.

Chapter one begins with a group of young would-be assassins in Havana. Once merely just an underground protest group who spray-painted slogans on walls, they have now moved on to bombs in trashcans and one under a police car. They meet and plan to assassinate General Ramiro Vega of the Cuban Army. Chapter two finds us in America with a woman, Gail, whose new husband, Anthony, is Cuban. They are planning a vacation to Havana and planning on staying with his relatives, the General Vega being his brother-in-law.

Our next chapter finds Anthony in a meeting with his embittered Cuban refugee grandfather, then they are joined by the local Congressional Representative Bill Navarro (a virulent anti-Castro firebrand) and an “assistant” to the committee Navarro sits on. That committee happens to be intelligence, meaning the assistant is no doubt CIA. They have intelligence that Vega wishes to defect and want the Quintanas to assist if possible.

Because the Quintanas were divided by the revolution, the ones who stayed and the ones who left, every member of the family has to tread the line between things they don’t say aloud. Anthony is especially torn as he remains friends with all of them, pro- and anti-Castro; so with the Communists he doesn’t mention his friendship with dissident members of the family; when back in Miami he doesn’t allow his relatives there to know he’s going, especially his grandfather.

Quintana doesn’t himself get involved in Cuban politics on either side because, as he tells a different General, it is a ‘swamp of lies.’ He should know as he himself is hiding quite a few secrets. It is quite easy to figure out before the book is even half way over just what one of those secrets are.

The biggest shock of his secrets’ revelation is just how poorly he understands their consequences. It’s the least predictable aspect of the novel, his own ignorance; and the book is a sea of predictability. The good guys triumph, the bad guys are foiled, escapes are made just in the nick of time. Later when there is some misdirection business involving an iPod, it’s all too easy to see how that will later develop as well.

Parker seems to take her readers’ indulgence for granted. There seems to be a kind of surface understanding of things, a low-budget quality, as though Parker had read the Idiot’s Guide to Cuba, dropping a Jose Marti here and a Che Guevara there, checking the neighborhoods on a Havana map and that was the sum of her research. For a bestselling book, this comes off more like community theater where the sets’ obvious cheapness demand your suspension of disbelief. I’m not an expert on Cuba, but the place setting just felt too thinly portrayed.

More hard to swallow in the book, as things start to tighten down, murders happening, friends being arrested, spies and counter spies threatening Anthony, no one seems to think the kids should stay in the house or in the company of an adult. Teenage son Danny is always off going to the clubs with his cousins; their youngest daughter Karen takes a little tour with her vaguely addled grandmother at one point. To facilitate the climax, Danny and Karen, the youngest two kids, are sent out to the bakery to get a cake, then when they don’t come back after three hours, Anthony isn’t worried, he just thinks, well, maybe they got distracted.

Of course, Karen has been kidnapped and drugged by the villain, who luckily for us, is a Cuban Commie, which means he has a decent mustache to twirl. But, of course, luckily for the Americans, the cavalry rides to the rescue, law and order is restored, and the family returns home, having managed to save themselves (but not Anthony’s brother-in-law, who has newfound love for the regime after the assassination attempt is foiled). And as a kicker, they manage to get all the dirty little spy secrets back to the good ol’ Yew Ess Ay.

Hopefully, for Parker's readers, she stays back on her more comfortable turf, the courtroom.

As far as narration goes, I think I have found the limits of my admiration for William Dufris. In a coy seduction scene between Anthony and Gail, hearing his high pitch woman’s intonation had a rather frightening cross dresser quality that simpered too sweetly. I shivered. It was the book’s only moment of pure dread.

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