The Ax-Files - A Review of Stephen Donaldson’s Mystery Novels
(last updated: January 28 2004)
UK: buy at Amazon US: buy at Amazon
UK: buy at Amazon US: buy at Amazon
UK: buy at Amazon US: buy at Amazon
Omnibus edition of first three books
UK: buy at Amazon US: not available
UK: buy hardback at Amazon US: buy hardback at Amazon
UK: buy paperback at Amazon US: buy paperback at Amazon
The First Bit
In his "Man Who...." series, Stephen Reeder Donaldson, giant of fantasy/SF, takes a rather unexpected incursion into the mystery genre. The books trace the story of Mick "Brew" Axbrewder, struck-off private investigator, and his partner Ginny Fistoulari. The books are set smack in the centre of some of the hoariest clichés of mystery fiction - the hardboiled alcoholic private eye, the mystery weekend where real murders occur - but are given a distinctly Donaldsonian twist.
The first three books were initially published under the pseudonym Reed Stephens, and were out of print before being reissued under Donaldson's name. For the last book, Donaldson drops the pseudonym, and by the looks of things it's the last one in the series.
Biting The Hand That Reeds You
I feel very, very bad about this. When I couldn’t find the third in the series, Stephen Donaldson, who doesn’t know me from a lesser spotted gerbil, very kindly sent me the book from his own stock. (Name-dropping on a cosmic scale or what?) This was stupendously nice, and I wish I could repay him by giving the books a favourable review: I was certainly expecting to, as some of his other works are amongst my favourites of all time. But like these books, despite my best efforts, I cannot. If you feel faint at the sight of blood, read no further.
Read At Your Own Risk
This review contains major spoilers for all four books. You have been warned.
The Man Who Killed His Brother kicks off the Axbrewder series. Mick "Brew" Axbrewder, a drunk racked with guilt after his accidental shooting of his brother, tries with his partner and sometime lover Ginny Fistoulari to find his vanished 13-year-old niece and solve a series of deaths of girls in similar circumstances.
The book’s set in what seems to me, in my happy ignorance as a non-American, to be a vaguely New Mexican-ish town, Puerta Del Sol, which is dominated by a crime lord known with astonishing hokiness as El Señor. Unsurprisingly for a Donaldson opus, the plot’s a tad convoluted, but in essence Brew and Ginny discover that secretary of the school board Julian Kirke is implicated in press-ganging these girls into a prostitution ring and disposing of them when they’re no longer of use, during the solution of which Ginny gets her left hand blown off while holding a bomb out of a hospital window. No, really.
In the middle of all this Brew saves a young Spanish woman from being raped and gets entangled with the Spanish community in general and El Señor’s outfit in particular. All of the Spanish stuff seems like pretty much of a gigantic red herring, but not so - Donaldson has a master plan which took several more books to work out. This man cannot write anything self-contained. (All right, then, except the short stories.)
I’ve Been This Way Before
I’d love to have had the chance to have read the first three books without knowing who the author was, as I’d like to know whether I’d have guessed it was Donaldson. I certainly hope I would have, as the books fairly shout their author from the rooftops. Donaldson prides himself on being able to vary his style to suit the particular piece, and there’s no doubt that he pulls this off here, but despite this there’s no mistaking the Donaldsonness of it all.
First, there’s the themes. On unpacking the first book from its box, I roared with laughter - the cover line is "He’s a private eye with a public shame". I think this alone would have been enough to have tipped me off as to who the author was, so intense has his interest been in the concept of shame in his works. Here, Brew is driven by the shame of killing his brother, Ginny is driven by the shame of being less then a woman after she loses her hand, plus a buncha other pathological stuff. Brew is a flawed hero, as usual, on a journey towards redemption, as usual, and Ginny, as usual, is a strong woman but with some significant vulnerabilities.
Another dead giveaway is the amount of suffering the characters go through, both physical, getting separated from body parts and ventilated by bullets, and psychological - in this book, Brew is racked with shame, Ginny is anxious and under stress, Lona is in pain, and on and on. And if these weren’t enough to give the game away, there’s the harping in this book on the theme to which Donaldson returns constantly: rape. Alathea and the other girls suffer multiple rapes; Brew prevents a rape; and there’s a slew of rape references:
"...a violation as bad as any rape"
"Next time, just ask me to rape the rest of their kids. It’d be easier."
"The sun...gave the day a glare of futility - everybody in the city could go crazy, rape each other and drop dead, and it wouldn’t make one damn bit of difference to the sun"
Some of the character depiction, too, occasionally reminds the reader of other of Donaldson’s characters, particularly from the Gap: Donaldson’s description of Ginny as "mad enough to chew steel" could have been lifted right out of a description of Min, and "it was a shark’s grin - eager and dangerous" sounds very reminiscent of Nick. And this phrase, changed to the third person, could have come direct from Angus: "Sometimes I wanted to kiss [her nose] so bad I had to grit my teeth. Now I wanted to hit it." Need I add, too, that there’s some obligatory clenching and unclenching going on.
I greatly disliked all the Axbrewder books, but for different reasons each time. In this one, what I hated above all else was the incredibly unpleasant nature of the subject material. Alathea, Axbrewder’s niece, is thirteen years old when she is kidnapped and forced into prostitution and heroin addiction, as a string of other girls have been before her. She manages to escape the fate of her predecessors, who all ended up dead, but after what she’s been through it doesn’t seem like much of a deliverance.
In addition, despite Brew and Ginny’s sleuthing efforts, Alathea manages to get away from her captors entirely as a result of her own efforts, which psychologically is pretty unsatisfying - okay, Brew and Ginny find the culprits, but Alathea had to rescue herself, and they couldn’t save her before her escape from an experience which (understatement extraordinaire) will scar her for the rest of her life. At the end of the book, her doctor is quoted as saying of Alathea, thirteen years old, heroin addicted, raped multiple times and still in a coma: "He thinks she’s going to be all right." I feel sooo much better now.
As well as the fate of poor Alathea, there’s a truly sickening passage near the end of the book where one of the bad guys tortures the father of one of the girls with accounts of how much he enjoyed his thirteen year old daughter’s sexual favours, and Ginny’s hand being blown off is no moment of sunshine either. It’s not that this stuff is wrong per se (although it’s damned ugly), but to me it’s wrongly placed - entirely too dark for the genre as the worst part, Alathea’s ordeal, is unleavened by the catching of the criminals. The whole point of mysteries is that whatever's wrong in the fabric of the universe is put right by the end: it's a very moral genre in that respect. Donaldson doesn't repeat this mistake in the later books.
Look Out Behind You!
The sheer obviousness of the plot of this book is awe-inspiring. If you can’t guess the bad guy in this, you’re dumber than a bag of Klingons - the villain is the most cardboard I’ve seen in an æon, so black he’s virtually twirling his moustachios. (The only thing that might put you off the scent is a conviction that no-one so obvious could possibly really be the baddie.) The guy enslaves his secretarial staff in a reign of terror and utters such winsome opinions as "all women are bitches" and "by the time they reach junior high, all the girls in this town are nothing but little whores": he doesn’t have a single redeeming feature. I defy you to read this bit of dialogue and tell me you couldn’t guess from it that the speaker is the villain:
"His voice wasn’t loud, but it cut through all the work noise in the room....he handled the paper gently enough, but in some strange way his manner made the movement look like an act of violence.
‘Type it again," he said. "This time, get it right.’ His voice was sarcastic enough to draw blood."
(This sounds, by the way, very like a line from the Gap referring to Nick: "His voice wasn’t loud, but it slid down her spine like the tip of a blade..." Only Donaldson could make a typo this gothic.)
The melodrama isn’t limited to the stock villain: other plot points also ladle it on, particularly the bomb scene. I mean, come on! A guy sneaks into a hospital room dressed as a doctor, but instead of clearing the room and quietly suffocating Alathea as any self-respecting murderer would, he plants a bomb? That might go off while he was still in the hospital? That might detonate accidentally while he was carrying it? It reminds me of those old Batman eps where the Joker instead of just shooting the guy ends up suspending him over a tank of shark-infested custard.
And if that weren’t bad enough, Ginny electing to hold the bomb out the window - in her hand - totally defies belief. I could when reading this scene immediately think of half a dozen less galactically stupid ways of dealing with the bomb than this, and while Donaldson sheepishly acknowledges this at the beginning of the next book by having Brew ask himself why he didn’t think of using his belt to hold the bomb, this really isn’t good enough. (And again it’s incredibly ugly.)
Besides all this, doesn’t it seem a little odd that Ginny’s hand is severed so neatly? I’m no physicist, but I would have thought that the blast, taking the line of least resistance back through the open window, would have done more to the rest of her than cover her with plaster dust.
El Señor’s ordering of alcohol to be poured down Brew’s throat also stretches credibility to the breaking point; then there’s the cobwebbed plot device "meet me in the deserted x, and I’ll tell you everything - before I kill you." Good grief! Is anybody still using that? None of this stuff is necessarily wrong in itself, but to work it has to satisfactorily answer the question "why?", which it resoundingly fails to do.
So, what else is there not to like? Let me count the ways.
The Hangst Of It All
Donaldson’s naming, usually his great strength, goes horribly wrong here. "Brew" Axbrewder is such an ugly name that it continually assaults the ear (my ex-husband called him "Brew Axe-Murderer"), and Ginny’s surname also has an unpleasant impact (fistula?). About the only names that do work are Alathea’s and Lona’s (Alathea’s mother, whose name accurately conveys her widowed state after being relieved of her husband by her brother-in-law).
Many of the other names are nothing short of bizarre. I know Americans often have strange names, but Treddus Hangst? Martha Scurvey? Lawrence Smithsonian? Connie MOUSSE? Puh-leeeze. The cheesiness of El Señor I’ve already mentioned, but it pales into insignificance before the priceless name of the nightclub - El Machismo! - which brought tears to my eyes. If it wasn’t for the fact that Donaldson never seems to treat his work with anything less than utter seriousness, I’d conclude he was seriously taking the piss. (Incidentally, I haven't seen the reissued version, but my spies tell me that in it some of the names have been changed to make them less baroque: Ted for Treddus, for example. Huh.)
The whole thing’s just so damned unlikely. You could say this about a lot of plots, obviously; it depends on the skill of the writer as to whether the reader is willing to swallow events as presented, and Donaldson never succeeded in suspending my disbelief. It’s hard to say exactly why this is: it’s probably an amalgam of a number of factors. Certainly the high melodrama strains credibility, and the cardboard villain doesn’t help either, especially when he has dialogue as phoney as: "Stick around - we’ll put our feet up, have a few drinks, and tell each other secrets." The fact that one of the baddies, Rinlassen, only appears very late in the piece so that we know nothing and care less about him also contributes. Rinlassen’s evilness is, if possible, drawn in even broader strokes than that of the main villain, and his function of obligingly explaining the outstanding plot issues before getting bumped off is so obvious that I mentally picture him with "exposition device" tattooed on his forehead. There’s never any explanation, either, for why these guys are so evil - they’re just bad to the bone and that’s it.
This Is A Job For Supereditor
Technically, the book is flawed in a number of ways. Pacing, normally one of Donaldson’s strengths, is seriously off here - Ginny’s hand being blown off feels like the climax of the book, yet there’s a heap of stuff to get through after that, much of which is hard to take in as we’re still reeling from what happened to Ginny. As I’ve already said, exposition is sometimes clumsy (the school principal laboriously and gratuitously explaining the school’s computer system to Brew and Ginny is a further example of this). There’s one obvious error which bespeaks careless editing: a car is referred to as a "Citröen-Maseratti" (yes, with two t’s). Dialogue is frequently stilted, and secondary characters are either one-dimensional (the villains) or skipped altogether (Alathea), the latter being a very serious mistake indeed. We first meet Alathea in her absence, and when she does appear in person she’s in a coma, so her deliverance falls pretty flat; it also gives the entire book a curiously gratuitous feel, as we can care about Alathea’s fate only in the abstract.
Now Read On
The fact that Donaldson plants stuff in this book which won’t be paid off till later books creates problems for the first-time reader: the expectation of the genre is that each book is more or less self-contained, so that much of the Spanish stuff planted here which will be paid off in the later books seems like an irrelevant distraction. Genre fiction has conventions which are often quite restrictive, and the author violates them at his peril.
Which One Was He Again?
As well as the stock secondary characters, even the main characters here never believably come to life. Efforts at characterisation are frequently hamfisted: Brew’s chief distinguishing trait, his size, is hammered with tiresome repetitiveness, and I gritted my teeth (or, more fittingly, clenched my jaw) when Brew referred every time to Ginny’s car, an Oldsmobile, as "the Olds": this was an artificial and maddening device whose irritation factor increased with exposure, of which there was plenty - three references per page in places. Brew’s alcohol-soaked self-pity - "She wanted me to quit drinking. Completely. Forever. That was something I couldn’t do. I wasn’t worth it" - rapidly becomes extremely tedious, especially when it’s hammered home repeatedly. (The shooting, incidentally, was five years before. Get over it, dude.) Ginny is marginally more interesting, as while she does engage in yawnsome recriminations over Brew’s transgressions, she at least has some drive, although any character allowing her hand to be distributed over the greater metropolitan area is not going to keep my respect for long. Overall, though, neither really captures the interest, and you end up reading faster and faster so that the whining will stop.
Of All The Bars In Puerta Del Sol, She Had To Walk Into Mine
The entire scenario is heavily clichéd: you’ve seen a million films, you’ve read a million novels. Now this has to be deliberate: nobody could write a novel about an alcoholic private eye, especially with the hard-boiled tone Donaldson uses, without consciously tipping his or her cap to the tradition of the genre. But because it is a cliché, the reader expects a lot to overcome the hoariness of the situation: the use of the cliché as a base for an innovative new direction, an inversion of what’s expected, or whatever. While Donaldson undoubtedly gives the novel his own twist, nevertheless the material never rises above the clichéd situation. This was perhaps the most serious disappointment of the book for me.
Overall, the combination of unlikely, melodramatic plot, dull characters and an uninvolving mystery meant that to my astonishment I found that this book was actually boring, something I never expected to feel about a Donaldson work. I doubt had I not known it was a Donaldson that I would have read on to the end.
After disliking The Man Who Killed His Brother so heartily, I picked up the next one in the series with hope - surely this one would be an improvement? Alas, it was not to be - this book made me begin to regard the first as a masterpiece.
I found the plot of this one so tedious and lacking in credibility that I can’t even bring myself to give a summary. Suffice it to say that Brew and Ginny are hired as protection by Reg Haskell, banker, who turns out after an increasingly dull series of twists to be himself the bad guy. In case Ginny’s hand being blown off wasn’t stupid enough, Brew gets shot in the gut after being dragged by Ginny outside Reg’s house within range of a bullet.
I disliked this book so much I hardly know where to start.
Firstly, the book starts with a cheat. Donaldson is balancing the demands of a continuing series with the need for closure at the end of each book in the series, and the only way to achieve both in this instance is through some very unsatisfactory sleight of hand. At the end of The Man Who Killed His Brother, Donaldson implies a rapprochement between Brew and Ginny: "I walked over to Ginny, bent down to her. Gave her the best kiss I had in me...she wrapped her arms around my neck and kissed me back. Hard. When we stopped I was grinning like a crazy man..."
However, the beginning of The Man Who Risked His Partner instantly belies this rosy implication: Brew and Ginny are living together, but mostly because Ginny apparently decides that after the loss of her hand she needs someone to take care of her, and the situation between them is an armed standoff. Brew and Ginny swap places in this one, and it’s Ginny’s turn to wallow in her own misery, feeling ugly, undesirable and bitter at the loss of her hand. It isn’t any more interesting than when Brew does it, either.
In case you hadn’t noticed that she’s not exactly proceeding about her business with a smile on her lips and a song in her heart, Donaldson helpfully underlines this whenever possible: "She’s going to pieces in front of you." "Right in front of me, she was coming apart at the seams." Just to make sure, Donaldson drags out the anvil: "We’ve traded places...now I’m the one who sits around and drinks." Ouch! Where did that come from?
The plot itself simply defies belief. Donaldson uses the feeble excuse of Ginny’s disintegration to push her into some highly unbelievable behaviour in order to move the plot forward: she gets drunk at Haskell’s house when she’s supposed to be guarding him, which I don’t buy for a minute, and her dragging Brew outside so that he can get shot is the most specious plot device I’ve ever seen.
Reg Haskell (pronounced "Regg", which annoyed me all the way through) is appallingly drawn: his character never makes any sense at all. He gives Brew and Ginny an ever-changing series of explanations for why he needs their protection: there are so many of these that by the time the real one comes along the reader couldn’t care less.
Donaldson tries to paint Haskell as irresistible to women, but the reason for this really is a mystery, as he invariably comes across as a prize jerk. His dialogue is unbelievably phoney ("it was new and exciting and dangerous"), and his reactions to situations are so bizarre that I wouldn’t have been surprised if at the end he was beamed up to the mothership: for example, after telling Brew and Ginny he doesn’t want them to speak to a certain character, Haskell on finding out they couldn’t talk to him instead of being relieved "managed to look crestfallen". What? After a valet parker is blown up (yes, more explosives), Haskell is "grinning like a little boy after a successful raid on the cookie jar" - perhaps the most stupid villain alive, although not as stupid as Brew and Ginny, who take about a book longer than the rest of us to figure out what the hell he’s up to.
The main plot point, that Haskell is in fact a gambler, is so transparent that I was dumbfounded when it was presented as a revelation: in fact I had to go back and check, so convinced was I that Donaldson must have spelled it out in so many words. Well, he doesn’t quite, but if you can’t guess from this on page 45: "He had to go away for a business trip one weekend, and when he came back he was excited. He said he’d gotten involved in some kind of investment and made a lot of money", you’re definitely playing a few kings short of a deck.
In case that’s not enough, though, Donaldson points out that Haskell is a member of Jousters, a bridge club whose members play for high stakes, and even tosses in a scene at the club showing Haskell’s winning playing methods. (Donaldson, clearly a bridge player himself, throws in a self-indulgent and mind-numbingly dull card scene which is entirely gratuitous and, if you don’t play bridge, completely devoid of meaning. Ian Fleming he ain’t.) When the great discovery actually comes out, Brew muses: "‘Where do you think he goes to invest his money over the weekend? He goes to...Las Vegas.’ That surprised me in several different ways at once." Surprised you? Babe, if you had a licence you should be handing it in.
But At Least There’s...Oh, No, There Isn’t
As well as the bizarre villain and the transparent and tedious plot, none of the rest is any good either. There’s an incredibly silly, extraneous and annoying subplot involving a woman inexplicably hooked on Reg and her hilariously cartoony boyfriend, a mercenary, whose wild-eyed stalking of Reg hardly seems characteristic of a professional killer. Characters’ reactions are way overboard for the situation: "‘Watch your mouth, sucker, I said.’ Ginny said, "Heel, Brew.’ She sounded amused. I had my hands locked into fists so I wouldn’t hit her." (Bit over the top, isn’t it? What a guy.)
There’s a money laundering explanation that clunks horribly, and Donaldson shows off his strange dental obsession (I’d give my back teeth, she still made my back teeth hurt, I gave him a grin full of teeth and malice, the last one straight out of the Gap). And just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, capping it all off is the lurid melodrama of Brew struggling around Puerta Del Sol righting injustice with his guts full of lead. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Sigh. Donaldson has planted himself here so firmly at the extremes that there’s nowhere else to go, and the balance tilts inexorably from high drama to risibility. (Ginny, incidentally, reminds me even more of Min in this one: her features are described as looking as if they were moulded over iron, not bone, and "the muscles at the corners of her eyes were clenched white", the latter containing an extra bonus "clench" as well.)
While the first book had a lot of faults, this one, by virtue of its dreadful plot and characterisation, is awe-inspiringly terrible. It’s so hard to pick just one of these books, but of the four this might be very well the worst, by a (broken) nose.
The third outing in the series, The Man Who Tried To Get Away, is set right in the heart of traditional mystery territory: the murder camp. Brew, still only approximately in one piece after his shooting, and Ginny are hired as private investigators "for the insurance" and to give the guests a thrill that there are professionals on the job: they take the job to get away from continuing bogeyman El Señor, who here and in the next book has pretty much become a McGuffin.
The camp takes place in an isolated spot in the mountains, and it won’t astonish you to know that bad weather cuts it off completely, also bringing the phone lines down (why doesn’t anyone ever have a cellphone in these situations?) Much to nobody’s surprise, the murders become real and Brew and Ginny must find the killers before they all end up getting bumped off.
The three books are supposed to run on from each other fairly closely in time, but in fact this one, published in 1990, was written some years after the second, which was published in 1984: the first was initially published in 1980, and it contains many markers that place it at this time, from the controversy over introducing a computerised records system to the quaint pre-AIDS-era "swinging singles apartment block". I don’t know what broke the drought, but I really wish it hadn’t.
How Very Tarantino
Okay, now this one is a deliberate and overt homage: Donaldson makes this obvious by his knowing references "You know, this is like one of those locked room puzzles" "That’s the way they do it in most novels", not to mention two proselytising lectures on the nature of the mystery novel. But acknowledging the source just isn’t enough - a cliché with a few self-parodying references is still a cliché.
Have The Two Of You Considered Counselling?
Again, this novel is full of horrible things. Perhaps most importantly, the relationship between Brew and Ginny is at its most tiresome here: as Brew says, "everything was twisted". You said it, buster.
The novel once more starts with a cheat - The Man Who Risked His Partner ends with a state of peace between them ("I put my arms around her and welcomed her back") and in addition Brew is safe for the moment because of the heat on El Señor, but when The Man Who Tried To Get Away begins mere days later, Ginny’s recovery makes Brew resent her all over again and he starts getting phone calls saying someone’s out to get him. Their relationship at this point is just plain stupid: Ginny pretends to reassure Brew, and he pretends to believe her, which makes no sense at all. Ginny’s pretence is "to save him stress": yeah, right - being afraid an assassin’s after you and being told not to worry your pretty little head about it is the ultimate in relaxation.
Ginny then arranges this job to whisk Brew out of the clutches of El Señor, but Brew, the big lunk, doesn’t want to leave the hospital as he hates being "nursemaided" and resents Ginny for the fact that she’s protecting him. What, he’d rather be dead? This man is too stupid to live. Frankly, by this stage I was kinda hoping El Señor himself would burst through the door and put us all out of our misery.
The high angst continues, getting increasingly irritating as it goes along. Brew discovers they’d been recommended for the job by Lawrence Smithsonian (sic), whom neither of them has any reason to trust. But does he tell Ginny? Nah, he’s far too macho for that. "After all, why was I here? Not to get away from El Señor - that was Ginny’s concern for me, not my reason for coming. I was here to protect her from El Señor. And to start taking care of myself. So I wouldn’t be vulnerable to her." Brew continues to hammer this specious protect her/protect against her theme (which again is familiar from the Gap) until you want to scream "Patch it up or get out!"
There’s a new but no more interesting twist in the relationship later: jealousy. Brew gets a crush on Queenie, a female guest, and Ginny briefly gets entangled with a guy who later turns out to be one of the murderers. (Some PI you are, babe.) In between his heart going pit-a-pat over Queenie, Brew moons pathetically: "she didn’t love me anymore, and she couldn’t treat me like a real partner, but she was still Ginny Fistoulari." I felt like kicking him in his wounded stomach myself for his hangdog self-pity, especially when for no discernable reason other than it being useful for the plot he stops taking his antibiotics, ending up with a massive and well-deserved infection. I was hoping he’d die of it, but I suppose that was too much to ask.
Are You Sure It Wasn’t The Butler?
So, Brew and Ginny are annoying, but that doesn’t matter because of the brilliant plot, right? Wrong - the plot falls down all over the place. The most heinous crime is the lack of a convincing reason for the murders (apart from the ones carried out by the professional killer. Confusing, no?). Donaldson’s favourite theme of the emotional cripple returns here in spades: in the first book, it was Brew, stuck in a guilt loop over the shooting of his brother, who filled this part, and in the second, mourning over the loss of her hand, it was Ginny; in this one, they both join in the chorus together with the murderers, whose incredibly pointless modus operandi is to find emotional cripples, sleep with them then do them in for, apparently, the fun of it. Any book in the reading of which the reader, having discovered whydunnit, exclaims "That’s all?" has lost the plot somewhere along the way.
In addition, the notion of the murderers carrying out their nefarious deeds in this setting is impossible to swallow - in such an isolated place there’s a very limited number of suspects and they couldn’t possibly have hoped to get away with it. Reeson, the so-called professional killer, doesn’t make a great fist of it either; if I were trying to murder someone, I think I could do better than shooting someone who was holding someone else in front of them, not to mention putting rat poison down the chimney. (I swear I am not making this up.) The puzzle at the end, too, is as dull as one of those "two trains are approaching each other..." things.
There are a couple of charming sentences in there that effortlessly capture the essence of the plot’s silliness: "One of them’s a hit man who’s after me. He shot Cat and you, and broke Simon out of the wine cellar, and put rat poison down the chimney. The other killed Mac and doped Cat’s drink and stabbed you." Bwa-hahahahahaha! Who needs Prozac? These sentences are an instant ticket out of depression.
It’s Because I, Um.....
Donaldson has the characters doing stupid things in order to move the plot forward: for everyone to be safe, all they have to do is stay together in one room, as they all agree. But do they follow their own eminently sensible advice? Not a bit of it - they split up, thus enabling Ginny to get stabbed. Houston, short and weedy, flings himself combatively at the six-foot-whatever hulking Brew. The characters lock the suspected murderer in an isolated place when they could easily have restrained him where they could see him, thus inevitably allowing the real murderer to kill him. Brew outs the killer, a professional in these matters, to his face. Smart.
So it’s weak on the fundamentals, but it’s also weak on the little points, too:
Brew and Ginny are supposed to be there for "security", but all they ever do in that line is request that some guns be locked away (about which such a heavy-handed fuss is made that you can see the signals for miles).
Ginny punches Brew in his wounded stomach, which while I admit the considerable provocation is pretty unlikely behaviour. And by the way, isn’t her shooting a guy in the face for breaking her nose a bit over the top? Brew's no better, either. At the point where he hits Ginny with all the force he can muster he and I parted company permanently.
The guests know that two of their number are actors and two PI’s, but they don’t know who: despite the need to conceal their identities, Ginny introduces herself and Brew, after having their names all over the paper in the El Señor affair, by their real names.
Smithsonian drops Brew and Ginny in it in the previous book, and after finding Smithsonian set them up for this job, does Brew grab Ginny and beat a hasty retreat? Oh, noooooo. He can handle it. (As if.) Ginny in hanging around with a guy whose machismo constantly exposes them to danger clearly has a death wish.
The guests are all over each other before they even reach the camp - in the minibus yet! Very likely.
Some of the names are eyebrow-raising - the most smirksome is Cat Reverie, not to mention a woman whose chief distinguishing characteristic is her religion who’s named (clunk!) Faith.
None of the characters breathe, and some are drawn very crudely: Houston is a walking cliché of a Texas good ol’ boy and Queenie’s so relentlessly nice she’s like a tidal wave of saccharine.
Donaldson can’t resist the odd bit of proselytising: "She doesn’t have much patience for men who like to blow away innocent animals and call it sport". Hell, I couldn’t agree with her more, but I don’t have much patience with having this kind of lecture shoved at me. There was a mini-sermon on gambling in the previous book, too, which annoyed me just as much, even though I’ve been to Las Vegas three times and only ever put two quarters in a slot machine. (I got five back, too. I’m thinking of retiring on it.)
The tone of the book is curiously uneven - from angst factor ten at the beginning, there’s a lighter, almost humorous tone when they get to the camp that sits oddly with the rest of the agonyfest.
Some of the dialogue is lurid beyond belief, from Sue-Ann’s phoney dialogue à la Reg Haskell ("we’ll all have loads of fun"), the murderer’s completely unnatural: "Come over here any time you feel the need to get away. We’ll do our best to tell each other the truth" through Lara’s squirmy "If you let me, I would sell my soul for you" to Cat’s completely over the top: "I like men. No...that’s not quite right. I like strength. I like muscle and toughness." Strewth. I know she’s supposed to be one of the actors, but steady on. The one I can barely read without peeking at it through my fingers, though, is "She wanted you to be male. She wanted to revel in your maleness. That made her a woman, a real woman." This kind of stuff just about gets by in the SF/fantasy works, but here it just makes me want to crawl under the sofa.
"By this time, Reeson’s scowl looked positively joyous."
"They must have been clenched before.."
"Her voice sounded like her pallor, like she’d used up her courage a while ago."
"Even Maryanne nodded, doing her best not to laugh - or to wail."
"His eyes were full of fight instead of ruin."
Surprise! There’s a rape reference: "What kind of people do you think come to my mystery camps? Rapists?". Given that the remark is in reference to guns being locked up, this hardly seems appropriate. And again comes the theme of violence towards women; not only does Brew smack Ginny around, but one of the characters is involved with a sadist: "When he’s scared, he wants to do things to me...what he wants to do hurts. It hurts a lot. Sometimes I think it’s going to be more than I can bear."
There’s that weird dental thing again: "She was steady and straight, and I liked her so much my back teeth hurt". Well, my back teeth hurt, too, but for an entirely different reason.
Well, here we are again. The fourth book in the series, and this time it's published under Donaldson's name instead of the Reed Stephens pseudonym. In what strikes me as a pretty cynical marketing exercise, nowhere on the jacket does it mention that the book is part of a series. The ploy is clearly designed to catch those of Donaldson's SF and fantasy fans - the majority, from my experience - who don't know about the Reed Stephens books, and frankly, it stinks. Although Donaldson puts in a bit of backstory about Brew shooting his brother, on its own the book just doesn't make enough sense. If I'd bought this in the expectation of a stand-alone novel, I'd be feeling pretty puzzled, not to mention ripped off. (Actually, I didn't buy it at all. I was reluctantly planning to buy the softback when the hardback popped up on the new release shelves at the library. Lucky, eh?)
So what's it like, then? Well, at the beginning I was feeling quite optimistic: it was less baroque than the earlier books, and although the familiar teeth-gnashing irritation with Brew came flooding back after the first few pages, the book bade fair to be a step up on the other three. But alas, this was not to last. It's bad. It's very bad. And like the first three, it's bad in its own unique way.
And Not A Lot Of People Know That
Write what you know. That's what they say, isn't it? And in the main, it's good advice. Placing your novel against a background you're familiar with can add a richness of texture it's hard to get any other way.
But. But, but, but. What the how-to-write books hardly ever mention is the potential downside: if you're too much in love with your "what you know" background, it can end up overrunning the book. Even worse, your own fascination with the material may blind you to the fact that it won't necessarily be quite as gripping for the reader.
And that's a large chunk of what's wrong with this book. Donaldson, a student of Shotokan, is clearly spellbound by the martial arts scene. Fair enough: it's interesting stuff. But there's just far too much of it here: the plot is constantly stalled in neutral as character after character laboriously ladles on the exposition. The opening scenes at the tournament are a particularly egregious example of this. Brew obligingly trots about asking endless questions, but the fact that the answers come from several different people can't disguise the fact that all that's happening is one long lecture.
I was hoping that once the initial dollops of exposition were out of the way, we could get on with the book. Sadly, though, it goes on and on and on just about through to the end, most of it connected to the plot tangentially at best. And as well as the information overload, there's a profoundly irritating arc that Brew goes through. First, he spends a lot of time wondering why anybody would want to get involved in martial arts. Then he gets involved in a fight, some of the blows he receives hurt and he starts thinking there might be something in it after all. Finally - good God, what a surprise - he ends up as a convert. It's all so predictable it makes you want to hurl the book across the room. The "bridge is fun, so a bridge-playing scene is bound to be interesting" fiasco in The Man Who Risked His Partner was bad enough, but at least that was short. This suffocates the entire book.
The Plot Thinnens
As you'd expect, so much time devoted to martial arts description doesn't leave a great deal of space for an actual plot. And what there is of one is lousy. As a mystery, it's an utter failure: the bad guy's obvious from very early on, which makes the whole thing fairly pointless. Even more unforgivably, Donaldson has him explaining everything, for absolutely no reason, to Brew at the end. Gah!
And if that weren't bad enough, many of the plot events are unlikely to the point of risibility. Despite being afraid for his life, Brew agrees to go somewhere unknown at night with Sternway just so that Sternway can "show him where he gets his credibility". Um... The big fight scene in the dojo at the end is as spurious as it is improbable. And there are far too many "put up yer dukes" scenes, most overblown and dull to boot. I dunno, maybe it's a girl thing, but all that macho stuff just make me want to giggle - when I'm not yawning, that is.
There are other plot annoyances, too. Brew's assumption on no evidence that Ginny is sleeping with Marshal is exasperating, as are his "intuitions" that he doesn't share with the reader. The fight club scene was very unfortunate given the recent movie covering the same ground. And how come when Brew continues to go for his gun after being told to freeze by the police he doesn't get shot?
Overall, the plot's transparent, stagnant and loaded down with unnecessary exposition. There's too much yapping; what action there is isn't interesting enough; and very little of it passes the believability test. Not a good look.
Ees Just Zis Guy, You Know?
It's ironic that martial arts are about "perfection of character", because Donaldson's characters here are staggeringly weak. As I said in my review of his Gap books, by Orson Scott Card's "milieu, ideas, characters, events" taxonomy Donaldson seems most interested in ideas, but that doesn't mean he can't write character: some of his characters in other works are among the most vivid I've ever read. Here, though, that's just not happening.
Brew, the narrator, is pretty much as he was in the previous books: self-dramatising and riddled with self-pity. It's often hard to like the lead characters in Donaldson's books, but here it's for entirely the wrong reasons. I couldn't stand Brew three books ago and I still hate him now. The gut wound he got two books back is still around, but here it's gradually healing and he manages to be effective against the bad dudes in spite of it (spot the Thematic Significance!) He finishes up about as balanced as he's ever going to get, but I'd still avoid him at a party: he'd either bore me into a coma or I'd end up throttling him.
As for Brew's relationship with Ginny, which has formed the backdrop to all of the books, it's been poorly handled all along and this book is no exception. After all the Olympic-level angsting we've been through about it, in this book it's as if Donaldson's suddenly got as tired of it as the rest of us. Where the killers' motivation in the previous book was a "is that all?" moment, here Brew and Ginny's relationship gets the honours. Unfortunate, not to mention psychologically unsatisfying. Ginny appears only in silly cameos, Brew while occasionally flagellating himself about her doesn't let that stop him from getting involved with someone else, and Donaldson ties it all up at the end in a neat little let's-be-friends package which must have mystified the reader under the impression the book was a stand-alone. Not with a bang, but a whimper. So to speak.
As with the previous mysteries, the secondary characters don't seem even slightly real, and their motivations and actions are frequently nothing short of bizarre - when they're not so generic you can't tell them apart. Marshal, for example, is improbably nice to Brew no matter what a sour bastard Brew is, and says he hired Brew and Ginny because of their knack of finding "real cases", which he's jealous of. Huh?
Deborah is an even more unlikely character: after knowing Brew for approximately five minutes, she sits him down, freely confesses how she operates, gives him the Cat Reverie speech ("I like sex a lot... I like men who really are men" - as opposed to hamsters, presumably), then proposes a shag. Hmm, sounds more like the Readers' Letters column to me. The flirtation scenes that follow are, quite simply, excruciating. "She gave a throaty laugh that made me want to tear her clothes off"? Makes me want to tear his arms off. Brew refers to Deborah's "incomprehensible eagerness" for him: damned right it's incomprehensible. As with all the other relationships in this book, their relationship has no psychological truth to it at all.
Brew's relationship with Bernie is also irritating. Brew is supposed to care enough about Bernie's death to go out of his way to find his killer, and there's a heart-tugging scene in Bernie's apartment with Brew making promises to Bernie's dead wife to reinforce this, but it just doesn't add up. Bernie is a sub-Chandler exposition device whom Brew's only actually met a couple of times, and all the staring at the dead wife's photograph seems vastly overblown.
As for Sternway, he really crystallises what's wrong with the book's characters. With his high kicks, his feral grin and his "you cut me!" Sternway reminded me sharply at times of Nick Succorso, yet there's an ocean of difference between the two. Nick's a fascinating character, so real he leaps off the page, whereas Sternway, a tenth carbon, is simply unbelievable. Donaldson can do it, so why doesn't he?
And Another Thing
What else? Well, Donaldson's certainly keen to hit you over the head with the thematic stuff: he hammered on the sun/rain and light/dark metaphors until I wanted to scream. He also made the point three times that if Brew'd been back in Puerta Del Sol he would have been able to get information from his contacts. I heard you the first time! And I was annoyed by the names of the schools being in italics for no discernable reason, too.
And what about the usual suspects? As with the previous books, the bizarre names are present and correct: Beatrix Amity, Cloyd (tee hee) Hamson, Carliss Swilley ... Now, get your notebooks out, because we're going to check off the list. Ready? Clenched? Tick. Wailed? Tick. Without transition? Oh, yeah. Tick, tick, tick. Rape, shame, threats, malice, ire, back teeth hurting, chagrin, bile, made me want to weep - they're all there. Donaldson prides himself on being able to vary his style, but his vocabulary's quite another matter. He does throw the odd new one in here, though, thrashing "strain" and "poster boy".
Argh. Why go on? It's too depressing.
The Bit At The End
So, there you have it - four bad books by a writer nothing short of brilliant in other genres. My expectations were probably higher for these books than they would have been approaching someone else’s mysteries for this very reason, and the disappointment is consequently keener.
Perhaps Donaldson’s brilliance elsewhere is the key reason for his failure here. His writing is all about extremes, and these books are no exception; this is often an uneasy fit with the mystery genre, as things that sit comfortably within his more operatic works often seem plain silly in a real world setting. The angst factor is just too high - and too sustained - to be believable, and characters whose traits engage the heart and mind completely in the world of the fantastic seem overdrawn and lacking in credibility in a world we recognise. Themes that have served him well elsewhere here seem overblown: they weigh down and smother the slightness of the material. Craftsman, stick to your lathe.
UK: buy at Amazon US: buy at Amazon
UK: buy at Amazon US: buy at Amazon
UK: buy at Amazon US: buy at Amazon
Omnibus edition of first three books
UK: buy at Amazon US: not available
UK: buy hardback at Amazon US: buy hardback at Amazon
UK: buy paperback at Amazon US: buy paperback at Amazon