Imagine the hero of a thriller novel who is some white collar business consultant. His job is to pore over balance sheets, crunch numbers, examine reports, look for accounting errors and scrutinize the legal aspects of corporate transactions. Sound exciting?
Okay, not really -- but wait a minute - what if our handsome consultant gets caught up in a nefarious game of international intrigue? There's money laundering, mobsters, corrupt government officials, hired thugs, exotic-erotic women, murderers, evil millionaires - all these elements are seething in the urban-money-and-poverty pit of Hong Kong.
Well, those are the components of THE TRAIL OF MONEY by PETER DAVID SHAPIRO - and although he has all the ingredients for a compelling pot boiler - this novel feels more like a bottle of carbonated water with a loose cap. All the potential pop of a great plot fizzles away.
And here's why:
As the terrific writer Ben Bova advised, "All fiction is based on character." The characters in this novel simply are not fleshed out enough. Yes, we learn that Dr. Harry West has suffered the death of his daughter and a resulting divorce. This should add depth and dimension to the character, and forge empathy for him among readers, right?
Well, giving the viewpoint character a dead wife or child has become so common, especially among new writers, it now has entered the realm "plot gimmick" if not an outright cliché. Just in the past 50 books I have read, the following authors supplied their hero with a deceased spouse and/or child: John Connolly (dead wife and child), Stephen Ames Berry (dead wife), Paul Antony Jones (killed own child in accident), Michael R. Hicks (dead wife), Richard Brown (dead wife), James LePore (hero has a dead wife; his new love interest has a dead husband), Nathan Lee Christensen (dead wife) - and those are the one I can think of just off the top of my head - so easily more than 10% of the fast 50 books I have read.
Granted, I read more than 100 books per year, and this new dead wife/child trend may be invisible to the casual reader - but, well -- I'll let my reader decide if I am being fair in this regard, or if I am merely finding picayune fault.
But beyond that, what does our hero, Harry West, look like? I think he looks like a 30ish Harrison Ford, but you might disagree - you might think he looks like Vince Vaughn. Maybe he looks like your friend Charlie from college. We don't know because he is never described. Apparently, he a thirty-something white guy (I think) with a Ph.D.
By chance, Mr. West meets his future love interest on a jet ride over to Hong Kong. By fantastic coincidence, she is seated right next to him. She just happens to be a journalist who just happens to be, by more coincidence, reporting on the very project Mr. West is flying to Hong Kong to examine. Here is how we are introduced to her:
"She appeared to be in her mid-thirties, slim, good-looking with red hair cut short gamine style."
As it happens, the novel I read just prior to this one was an obscure 1960 science fiction pulp job, but it also featured a sexy redhead as a primary character. Here is how that author, Richard Wilson, introduced us to a woman his hero meets on a train:
"The girl's hair was a subtle red, but false. When Don had entered the club car he'd seen her hatless head from above and noticed that the hair along the part was dark. The cheeks were full and untouched by make-up. There were lines at the corners of her mouth which indicated a tendency to arrange her expression into one of disapproval. The lips were full, like the cheeks, but it was obvious that the scarlet lipstick had contrived a mouth a trifle bigger that the one nature had given her." (From: AND THEN THE TOWN TOOK OFF, Ace Double, 1960)
|PETER DAVID SHAPIRO|
Most of the other characters are as bland - they're mannequins dressed in suits with a lot of blanks for readers to fill in - and not just because we don't get treated to physical description - it's because they don't do or say much that clearly makes them unique, quirky individuals.
But a far greater problem for me is what I am going to call a certain rather odd GPS Effect - that is, the author is constantly giving us the niggling details of streets, plazas, locations, taxi routes, train connections, boat harbor routes, highways and walkways.
Even in a flashback describing a romantic adventure between two carefree post-college hitchers - the GPS device is constantly bip-bip-bipping in the background, as in:
"We stood together silently in front of a poster for Madame Tussauds Wax Museum on Marylebone Road next to the entrance to the Baker Street Underground station, where Mei-Ling would catch the Bakerloo Line to Piccadilly, and then transfer onto the Piccadilly Line to Heathrow Airport."
Nice to know how she'll be getting to the airport - I guess.
Furthermore, the author again and again injects the narrative with repetitive details which rob his story of tension. For example, sometime a character will summarize what the cops just told him for another character - even though we the readers already know it all - and we have to hear it all again.
Even during a passionate love scene, we simply must pause for a detailed description of the bathroom fixtures:
"The (hotel) had outfitted the shower with both the overhead sprayer and a second nozzle on a flexible stainless steel hose coiled on a hook just under the faucets. Guests could select either nozzle or both at the same time by swiveling a lever. The outer edge of the tub, opposite the wall, was two feet high and wide enough to accommodate indented seats that were carved into it. A light nylon shower curtain could be pulled along the outer edge to protect the rest of the bathroom from the spray."
The action of wet and steamy love scene is interrupted right in the middle - I'm not kidding - so that we can get this description of the tub and shower stall.
I have other quibbles as well. I hate it when writers reference pop culture in their narratives. (On the plane Dr. West watches "The Wedding Crashers," and in his hotel, he watches a Bruce Willis movie). This has the effect of yanking me right out of a fictional world back into our own mundane world of trash culture. (I read literature to escape from cultural trash, not to be reminded of it).
Despite all, the Trail of Money has an excellent, well-conceived plot. Let me tell you, it takes an enormous amount of writing skill to hatch a scenario such as offered here - I give the author colossal credit for being a brilliant strategic thinker in terms of crafting an air-tight scenario that never contradicts itself.
I say completely without guile, that I believe Peter David Shapiro to be a writer of fierce talent with a fine literary mind - I absolutely will be looking forward to and buying his future books, and I bet each one will be better than the last.
Ken Korczak is the author of: BIRD BRAIN GENIUS