October 31, 2011

BOOKS: Dominance, Will Lavender (2011)

Lavender crams an awful lot of story into this book. Here's the setup:

We alternate between two time frames. Fifteen years ago, Alex was one of nine literature students taking a special night class taught by the renowned Richard Aldiss; he's teaching by TV feed from prison, having been convicted of murdering two of his students. Aldiss's class, he tells the students, will lead them to the answer to one of the great modern literary mysteries: the identity of "Paul Fallows," the pseudonym used by an author who wrote two brilliant novels before his death. No one has ever been able to figure out who Fallows really was.

Alex quickly figures out that the mystery of Paul Fallows is closely tied to the murders for which Aldiss has been convicted, and that she can't solve one riddle without solving both. Which -- and this is hardly a spoiler, since Lavender tells you this very early on -- she does, becoming a hero in the literary world for solving the Fallows mystery, and not so much a hero for getting Aldiss freed from prison.

Jump to the future, where someone has started killing members of that special class, in precisely the same way that those two students were killed so many years ago. Could Aldiss have done it after all? Did Fallows ever really die? Is one of Alex's classmates a murderer?

So there's a lot going on here. Too much, really, and by trying to stuff two novels' worth of story into one not particularly thick book, Lavender can't give either piece of the puzzle the attention it deserves. Everything is rushed, and clues fall with loud thuds instead of being gracefully planted along the way. There's no time for character development beyond a few broad strokes, and since no one really has much personality, it's hard to care very much when any of them are killed off. The identity of the killer is painfully obvious -- the Rule of the Unnecessary Character will serve you well here -- and there's a final cutesy twist of ambiguity that's meant to make us rethink the entire resolution we've just been given, but only annoys.

(Which, it seems to me, misses the whole point of the mystery novel. The appeal for most mystery readers, I think, is that we get to see justice done, to see evil punished. When you follow "and the killer was caught, and the good people lived happily ever after" with "or did they?," you rob us of that basic element of the genre.)

Lavender certainly has ideas and imagination to spare. If he can learn to pare them down to more manageable size, he might write a pretty good book some day.

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