Thursday, October 22, 2015

Career of Evil, by Robert Galbraith

I cannot fault Robert Galbraith’s Career of Evil (Mulholland Books, 2015), his third Cormoran Strike novel, for readability.  It’s engaging, and it holds one’s interest.  It’s great to be again in the company of Cormoran and his assistant Robin.  She plays a more prominent role in this novel than the two earlier ones.  Galbraith (who is really J. K. Rowling) continues to taunt us with the subliminal romantic tension between these two, but when the novel is over we really have not moved forward—in fact we seem to have done the opposite.
This is the darkest of the Cormoran Strike novels.  It’s about a serial killer who murders and horribly mutilates his female victims.  The novel opens with the arrival of an amputated leg on Robin’s desk. The abuse and victimization of women is a major theme.  Strike and Robin track a group of individuals, all former colleagues of his from the war in Afghanistan, and try to decide which of them may be the killer.  Robin herself becomes the object of the killer’s plottings.  He wants to kill her in order to hurt Strike.  The novel often describes events from his point of view, though we never know who he is until the end.
Robin herself chafes under the restraints of her role as secretary even though she increasingly plays the role of Strike’s partner.  She is irritated at his efforts to protect her from the killer.  Strike himself is more than paternalistic.  He spends some time second-guessing his decisions, especially in regards to Robin.  Is he acting rationally, logically, or out of concern or affection for her?
This is a mechanical effort, however.  It follows the same basic narrative pattern as the earlier novels.  I think I pointed out in the second novel the fact that Galbraith spends a lot of time describing his characters doing nothing—marking time—walking down streets, driving cars, riding subways, sitting in pubs, marking time until the action advances. 
Career of Evil comes to an ending that is both conclusive and unresolved.  The ending frustrates our hopes about Robin and Cormoran, yet leaves in the back of the mind a suspicion, if not certainty, that things are hardly over.  Yet I don’t see how this series can go much further if Galbraith doesn’t find a way to move these characters along or to advance his narrative method.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Saturn Run, by John Sandford and Ctein

Saturn Run (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2015): This dry procedural is about a voyage to Saturn.  Its tone is neutral and in ways it reminded me of The Martian, where an astronaut marooned on Mars struggles to survive.  The problems that arise in this novel are not especially surprising—technical malfunctions--and the means by which the crew acts to solve them at the least seem plausible.
The reason for the trip to Saturn is the discovery of what appears to be an alien spaceport on a small moon embedded in one of the rings.  The Americans want to get out there to see what sort of alien technology they can recover.  So do the Chinese.  This novel is part melodrama, part space race, part political intrigue, part science fiction.  It’s readable, but barely so. It offers up the usual assortment of futuristic characters—a surfer dude who is really a high-level digital videographer who is also a secret military commando, a lesbian space captain, a fat ex-football player with an elderly cat, and so on.  Despite the high tech, the exoticism of a voyage to Saturn where aliens may lay in wait, the tone of the novel is fairly humdrum.
The real point of interest in Saturn Run is what the voyagers discover when they arrive.  The aliens themselves are long gone.  In a building on the moonlet is a small workstation that answers questions. It’s like Siri, but with a database of hundreds of thousands of questions and a fairly sophisticated artificial intelligence.  The station will answer some questions and not others.  It’s willing to trade alien technology for cultural artifacts—music, art, etc.  So the alien presence on Mars—not a drooling lizard-like creature, not a monolith, not a little green man--is a Siri-like monopoly game. This is hilarious on the one hand, a let down on the other. In the end, it serves us right.

Monday, October 05, 2015

The Black Dahlia, by James Ellroy

Human corruption is so pervasive in James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia (The Mysterious Press, 1987) that one thinks of abject darkness when one thinks of the novel at all.  It projects a convincing world, but in its underlying ambiance of doom and pessimism it ultimately generates its own inner logic, so that as one plot twist after another throws the reader off kilter, the element of shock and surprise dissipates.
Here we have a character, police detective Bucky Bleichart, whose interest in a horrific crime becomes increasingly entangled with his own inner sense of shame and failure, his pathological fascination with a promiscuous young woman who had been savagely murdered and cut in half before he ever knew of her existence.  His erotic obsession with her, his sense of loyalty to friends and his partner, betrays him.
Ellroy has no faith in human character and institutions.  The police are corrupt and venal, the prosecuting attorney is a political opportunist, the whole institution of law enforcement devotes itself to solving a crime because of the media’s obsessive fascination.
It seems to me that late in the novel, Mr. Ellroy grows tired of his own games, and he rather easily and simplistically dispenses with key elements of the mystery that he had taken hundreds of pages to introduce.  A key bit of information, heretofore hidden from our narrator, is casually revealed by a secondary character, and suddenly an entire dimension of what this novel is about stands resolved, in a matter of a paragraph or two—this happens not through the machinations of the protagonist, but rather through the arbitrary sharing of information.

Bleichart writes in his prologue, “I never knew her in life.  She exists for me through others, in evidence of the ways her death drove them. Working backwards, seeking only facts, I reconstructed her as a sad little girl and a whore, at best a could-have-been—a tag that might equally apply to me.”