Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Un-Super Natural

Christopher Farnsworth's series "The President's Vampire," about a 150+-year-old nosferatu who aids the United States in a battle against demonic forces, has been a source of much frustration. On the one hand, there's the intriguing possibilities of the mix of national security and supernatural warfare. There's the potential in a character who was raised and grew up as a human being but is now a predator of humans, even though he has forsworn his regular prey in order to honor an oath to serve the president. There's Farnsworth's gift for pacing and slam-bang action scenes that vividly creates impressions of inhuman speed and strength in combat. There's Farnsworth's often dry wit that echoes some of the best Buffy the Vampire Slayer lines in the mix of the mundane and magical.

But then there's the all-too-obvious use of other folks' stuff as source material in the books, like Mike Mignola's Bureau of Paranormal Research and Development from his Hellboy and B.P.R.D. comics. And the way vampire Nathaniel Cade's human liasion, Zachary Barrows, emulates the "Robin the Boy Hostage" trope of some clich├ęd Batman stories (and the way that Cade himself creeps people out as the Caped Crusader does). Or in the most recent novel, Red, White and Blood, the semi-conspiracy, semi-cult behind "dead teenager" movies and stories used in Josh Whedon and Drew Goddard's Cabin in the Woods.

2012's Blood supposes that there is a single demonic being behind all of the "hook-handed psychopath"-styled urban legends, who calls itself the Bogeyman. Cade has defeated and killed the Bogeyman's human host many times, but it only goes dormant until human beings who worship it conduct the needed bloody rituals to make it rise again. Usually the Bogeyman just kills in its own vicinity, feasting on the psychic energy of the terror it creates. But this time it's targeting Cade, and it's doing so by going through the campaign staff of President Samuel Curtis. Cade can't hunt the Bogeyman while protecting Curtis, but his oath demands he do so. He may not be strong enough to defeat the monster in this round, and as he waits for the confrontation, the body count mounts.

Farnsworth's strengths are as much at the front of the third Cade novel as either of the other two. And Zach graduates from his designated hostage role to someone who can act on his own (Think Dick Grayson moving from Robin to Nightwing). But he bypasses the opportunity to explore how a man who believes himself to be damned still fights as though there is something worth saving, in order for some clumsy and lame political satire he hasn't much hope of pulling off. Several characters enter the story for no real reason, and are given dialogue and plotlines that rest on equally absent foundations and keep us away from the most fascinating character in the book, Cade himself. When we do spend time in his head, he's busy telling us things instead of letting Farnsworth show them, or killing some of his own best character lines by repeating them a few dozen pages later.

Blood is a 2012 release, and Farnsworth's next novel -- about the Fountain of Youth -- is set for 2015. He's said the fourth Cade novel would follow it (although an e-book Cade short story came out this last February), so here's hoping he has time to focus on where he's most skilled, dig into the real potential meat of his characters and set aside the political satire and commentary he's not particularly qualified to do. Otherwise, it may be time to sharpen the pitchforks and ready the torches.
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Father-and-son Kellerman are two-thirds of the bestselling authors in the Kellerman family (Faye -- Jonathan's her husband and Jesse is her son -- is the third). Jonathan writes police procedurals with some psychological twists when he tells the stories of consulting psychologist Dr. Alex Delaware and his friend, LAPD detective Milo Sturgis. Jesse has written standalone novels but some have strayed into the crime-and-punishment scene occupied by his parents. He's demonstrated a willingness to be quite a bit more outre in his description and style, sometimes bordering on supernatural images even though his stories are all grounded in the here-and-now. Neither has been as overt in expressing their Jewish heritage and faith as Faye in her Decker and Lazarus novels.

But father and son will take some leaves from mom's notebook in The Golem of Hollywood, a mystery thriller that also involves the golem, a medieval Jewish legend about an indestructable blood avenger made of clay and animated by human beings. Jacob Lev is a functional alcoholic police detective in Los Angeles stuck in the traffic division after irritating his superiors. A strange and grisly find -- a human head with Hebrew writing nearby -- earns him a call from a rather shadowy division commander who reassigns him to handle the case. When the head turns out to belong to a wanted serial killer called the Creeper, Jacob has more information. But he also has more confusion to go along with it, as his superiors seem even more interested in a mysterious woman named Mai that he encounters than they are in the killer. Jacob travels to Prague to talk to police there about a similar murder, and uncovers facts about his cultural and personal history that enlighten and obscure at the same time.

As you'd expect when half your writing team (Jonathan) has spent 30 or so novels writing about police procedure, that part of the story is solidly founded. Jacob is molded from much of the same clay as Jesse Kellerman's young and somewhat arrestedly adolescent protagonists, and the younger author gives him a realistic 21st century cynical voice. The supernatural elements, though, are vague and unfocused. A parallel narrative of the creation of the golem's animating spirit of revenge, moving up through the late 1500s and the story of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel and the Golem of Prague dig much too deeply into the past and offers far too much detail for the minimal addition it makes in the story. Those same elements in the main narrative leave far too many unanswered questions -- or at least, they leave a lot of the wrong questions unanswered -- to bring about any kind of satisfying conclusion, and Jacob's own personal narrative stops rather than completes. It's OK for a reader to turn the last page with a questioning "Hmmm?" but Golem of Hollywood ends with a "Wha?" and very little in its overstuffed earlier sections to help that reader find either an answer or a better question.

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