Friday, 24 June 2011

Book review: "Double Cross" by James Patterson

I picked up this novel for 33 pence in a church jumble sale. James Patterson is famous as being a writer with a voracious output, someone who has had nineteen consecutive best sellers in the New York Times list. As such I really wanted to read one of his novels, especially as his forte is crime, a genre that I love.

Double Cross features Alex Cross, a retired Washington DC detective / psychologist who has been the subject of many of Patterson's previous books. The author does a reasonable job of introducing Alex Cross to a new reader, despite the obvious history that has developed in the earlier books. However, this might perhaps be because Cross is an exceptionally one-dimensional character.

My first impressions were not good. Where most writers split the actions into scenes, and then aggregate scenes into chapters, Patterson just uses chapters. Hence the 437-page book has a remarkable 126 chapters, and  feels satisfyingly weighty in the hand. Unfortunately this effect is reached by leaving lots of white space - not just at the start and end of the many chapters, but half-line gaps between each line of text.

This can, of course, be excused if the reader wants a book that he or she can dip into or out of on a train or bus - the chapters make it easy to find where they were in the book, and the large font makes it easy to scan. Unfortunately it also makes it look as though it was printed for an eight-year old to read.

The book fails in both characterisation and plotting: Alex Cross comes across poorly; perhaps Patterson felt no need to give his character any depth because his readers already knew him. If this is the case, then making all the other characters flimsy and insubstantial as well was unforgivable.

However the plotting was far worse. The main plot features a killer who kills his victims in public, an interesting idea that, for the obvious reasons needs to be handled well. It is easy to write a story where the killer performs dastardly deeds in some darkened deserted den, but much harder to write a realistic one where the murders occur in front of hundreds of bystanders. Yet it is hard to believe that the killer would escape from each of the murders described within the book.

In one scene - sorry, chapter - he kills an actor in the middle of a packed-out play. The killer jumps up through a trapdoor in the stage wielding a gun and covers the actor in a  flammable gel before giving a soliloquy to the audience. Only then does he set fire to the actor and escape backstage. None of the audience, other actors or backstage workers tried in any way to stop him either committing the murder or escaping. I would think that even the presence of a gun would not stop the many people backstage from tackling the killer. The killer is shown planning the murder in detail, yet he leaves his escape to pure chance.

And this is just one of the problems. Frankly the reader does not so much require suspension of disbelief as to put their mind in neutral. Which is perhaps the primary purpose of the book: to entertain readers without them having to really think.

Reading Double Cross was a turgid, flacid and limp experience. Where good literature should stretch the reader's mind, this filled mine with anonymous gunk. It was the literary equivalent of watching the illegitimate love-child of Big Brother and Pop Idol.

I really want my 33 pence back.


Jullie Flight said...

I've read this one as well. I had such a hard time going through the chapters. Top ten in my worst list.

kenetstone said...

I like reading about Alex Cross, even maybe mnore than i like reading about Hercule Poirott... Amazing is that you found the novel for 33 pence :)!
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