Thursday, June 26, 2014

Bogie, Double Bogie

Screenwriter Raymond Khoury has had better luck with his series featuring FBI Special Agent Sean Reilly and archaeologist Tess Chaykin than in his two standalone novels, so he returns to Sean's world as Reilly investigates the death of a Russian diplomat who was very probably pushed through an apartment window. And the middle-aged couple who live in the apartment have disappeared, deepening the mystery. Reilly will find conspiracy several layers deep as he probes the case, uncovering a potentially world-wrecking new technology that may fall into the wrong hands if he isn't successful. One of the last men to use that technology: Grigori Rasputn, the "Mad Monk" whose machinations helped lead to the downfall of Tsar Nicholas II.

The Reilly novels let Khoury flex one of his strengths, which is a crisp, fluid action scene, and they also allow him a healthy dose of wry through Reilly's dialogue and observations. But Shadow suffers from an overly-long string of flashback sequences connecting a present-day character with Rasputin and the mysterious device sought by Russian spies. The flashbacks derail the momentum of the present-day plot and wind up bringing less to the story than their rabbit-chasing is worth. But they also serve to pad the story out, since Reilly and company basically wind up in several shootouts with Russian gangsters and spies in a sort of "Rinse. Lather. Repeat" mode. There's far too little Tess in the story and a couple too many places where Khoury gives in to his habit of lecturing through character monologues, and some of the windup depends way too much on a ridiculous coincidence uncovered by Reilly. Khoury's narrative skills and fun characters still give him a lot of tools to work with, but Rasputin's Shadow might have needed another measure before being sent off as completed.
It's 2005. A top-selling 2003 airport thriller has been in production and will hit theaters next year. So other publishers know exactly what they have to do: Get as many knockoffs of The DaVinci Code into print while people are still interested in secrets contained in centuries-old artwork and manuscripts and shadowy Vatican conspiracies.

So thriller author Christopher Hyde adds the pen name Paul Christopher to his work and offers up Michlangelo's Notebook, a novel which is almost entirely derivative and which is still not any good when it isn't.

Graduate art history student Finola "Finn" Ryan has found something incredible tucked into a back drawer of the works she is cataloging at the museum where she interns. An old, tattered page that may be from the famed lost anatomical sketchbook of Michelangelo himself. But her boss rejects her notion and fires her; then a mysterious assailant attacks her later that evening. Now alone and on the run, Finn calls on an old friend of her late father's, a rare book dealer named Michael Valentine. But Valentine has a past of a different sort, and he will call on those skills to help Finn unravel the conspiracy that endangers her.

Notebook mixes art theft, Vatican conspiracies, puzzle-solving and breathless flight from evil assassins in a tested formula. And Hyde has a much better hand at the keyboard than Brown. His dialogue rings more real, his sentences don't limp and he inserts touches such as an art aficionado noticing a room's paintings and decor before anything else. He switches narrative tone for different viewpoint settings and characters in a way that helps distinguish them.

All that being said, though, Notebook is just about as bad as a knockoff of an already lousy book could be. The flashback scenes take up far more space than they merit. The ending is rushed, with a fairly major plotline ending instead of really being resolved. The whole thing reads like someone bet Hyde he couldn't write a DaVinci Code-like thriller in less than a week and  he brought this manuscript back as proof he could. Too many narrative threads, incomplete resolutions, specious "history" fueling the core conspiracy... Notebook hits all the checkpoints. And it adds in a Manic Pixie Dream Girl heroine who speaks and acts exactly the way a middle-aged author would imagine a twenty-something female who begins a romance with a middle-aged book dealer would act.

Hyde would continue the Finn Ryan series and in 2009 offer a second series from the pen of "Paul Christopher." Without having read them, I would be fairly certain they were better than Michelangelo's Notebook. Because it would take a lot of work to make them worse, and nothing about Notebook indicates that this is a series in which Hyde wants to invest that much work.

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