Monday, 25 April 2011

The Burning Wire: Jeffrey Deaver

A long time ago I read A Maiden's Grave, by Jeffrey Deaver, and was instantly very impressed. It was a cleverly plotted book with a good scattering of relateable characters, and some very clever writing which gave the prose equivalent of the fake-outs which TV and movies have always been so good at. I've read a fair number of Deaver's books since then, and the law of diminishing returns has really set in with a vengeance. This might, perhaps, have been something I saw coming.

Deaver's big earner for the last few years has been his Lincoln Rhyme books. It wasn't the first time he made a stab at the notion of a repeating character, but it was the first time that a repeating character broke out of the detective novel ghetto. Apparently he's got four books where the repeating character is a location scout or some such, and I've never felt the slightest urge to read them. The first Lincoln Rhyme book, The Bone Collector, was a runaway success and got turned into a movie with Denzel Washington playing Lincoln Rhyme (since the character was so plainly intended to be played by Christopher Reeve, I've never been able to figure out quite how it went THAT way, but hmmm). The second of those books, The Coffin Dancer, was probably the last Deaver book I read and really enjoyed; everything since then has been the triumph of hope over experience.

There's something very mechanical about Deaver's books now. The clever reveals and fakeouts aren't surprising or fresh any more, and there's something appallingly desultory about the characterisation.

Now, I knew that this was going to be a problem when I picked up The Burning Wire. All series detective novels start to become rote and mechanical and I'd read most of the other Rhyme novels and plotted the fall off. The only permitted character development is in the main character, and everyone else is marking time, all working with their one designated distinguishing feature (one recurring character has, as his sole character beat, an interest in ballroom dancing - it's all he gets, and it's always thrown in as a single sentence in the entry paragraph in each book - perfunctory is the only word for it). So I figured that this wouldn't be up to much, but sometimes you want something undemanding. And I set the bar pretty low, because Deaver's really churning stuff out these days and even his non-recurring stuff has been pretty flat (the most recent, The Bodies Left Behind, was something that looked really promising when I bought it, and it turned out to be a real wash-out).

But even with that low bar, The Burning Wire came in way under my expectations. Same old set-up; Lincoln Rhyme, genius quadraplegic forensic scientist, sends his ever growing troupe of one-note investigators out to look at scenes of crimes which are weird, and dominated by some over arching technical aspect which Deaver has just been reading up on - in this case electricity. Someone, probably a modestly paid researcher, has run out and done a boat load of homework on this, all of which is piled onto the page with the same care and attention I expect when a school cafeteria serves up mashed potatoes, and to pretty nearly the same effect on my appetite. I appreciate that most of the people who are reading these books don't know much about anything - I for example don't know much about learning that a man who's just written six straight books in a row that I didn't like reading has probably just written another one just like it - and therefore will need electricity explained to them in baby talk, but there has to be a better way of doing than this than asking us to buy into the idea that Lincoln Rhyme, a latter-day Leibniz, could somehow have survived collecting multiple science degrees without picking up the fundamentals of electricity. Hell, I I trained as a mere lawyer, and apparently I know more about electricity than Rhyme, a man who apparently felt able to complete his studies of physics by concentrating on only three of the fundamental forces of the universe (this is actually how it's put in the book) and skipping electricity entirely. That would be electricity, the only fundamental force which has been successfully manipulated in some way by pretty much every human alive today. Maybe that was what put it beneath his interest, I don't know.

Anyhow. It's all a damn shame, really, but I think I've had enough of Deaver for the moment. I think I'm all Rhyme'd out. But - and I do mean this - A Maiden's Grave and The Coffin Dancer are well worth your time as simpleminded timepassers. Just don't make the same mistake that I did. When Deaver puts something new in front of you and says it's going to be just as good as  last time, he's probably just faking you out.

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