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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Saturday, March 16, 2013

This "Private" Should Only Be a Buck!

By James Patterson and Mark Sullivan
(Little, Brown and Company; 448 pages; Jan. 21, 2013)
EBook by: Hachette Book Group

Thomas Harris has a lot to answer for: ever since he published The Silence of the Lambs, his 1998 novel featuring Dr. Hannibal Lechter, yarns about psychosexual sadists who commit serial slayings have become the default setting for murder fiction.

It is no longer enough to simply have a killer who commits an ingenious homicide: nowadays the villain has to kill at least a half dozen people to get the average reader’s attention.

Give the authors some credit: they recognize that in real life you will find more corpses after a makeshift bomb explodes on a Kabul street corner than in an entire bookshelf full of fictional serial killer yarns, so simply increasing the body count is no longer enough to hold a reader’s interest.
And catching the bad guy – or girl – is not enough, regardless of how clever the detectives are or how difficult their task may be; the detectives must stop the perpetrator before he kills again – and again, ad nauseam. As a result, it seems that murder techniques grow more complex and technical, the locales more exotic and the motives more bizarre in each new thriller that is produced.

James Patterson

Thus, in his latest novel, Private Berlin, James Patterson, author of Along Came a Spider and Kiss the Girls, comes up with a deranged German killer named Matthias Falk who is systematically eliminating people – including one of the investigators for Jack Morgan’s global detective agency, Private.

(In this review I refer to the novel as Patterson’s work. Admittedly, Mark Sullivan shares a byline with Patterson on this and one other novel in the Private series, but let’s face it: Patterson is the real draw; according to his entry in Wikipedia, he has written 97 books in the last twenty years. By comparison, Sullivan is relatively unknown: his webpage pegs his output at eleven books – and two of those were written with Patterson.)

Co-author Mark Sullivan

Somehow, I seem to have missed James Patterson’s work in the past. God knows how – the man is a fiction factory who cranks out books for adults, graphic novels and children’s fiction at a dizzying pace. He has managed to sell more than 260 million copies of his books in the last two decades, so when this one showed up on the New York Times bestseller list, I decided to give it a try.

I have probably spent ten dollars more foolishly, but I can’t recall when.

Here’s the recap:

The body count begins when the corpses of two people – one of them the missing gumshoe from Morgan’s agency -- are found in a long-abandoned East Berlin slaughterhouse. The corpses have apparently been tortured and literally fed to rats that live beneath the facility. Moreover, they are only the most recent bodies to have been stashed in this secret hidey-hole; the tunnels beneath the abattoir are filled with the decomposed remains of dozens of other victims, some obviously dead for years.
Morgan’s firm marshals an investigative team, at first to search for the missing op, and then, after his body is found, to find out who killed him and why. One member of the team is detective Mattie Engel, who had been engaged to marry the murdered man until she broke the relationship off six weeks earlier. Most of the story is told from her point of view, although in a third person format that allows Patterson considerable narrative freedom.

To solve the murder, Morgan’s sleuths must track down a psychopath who has methodically erased himself from all German records and is also a master of disguise capable of taking on a new identity at the drop of a hat – or, in some cases, wig.

More importantly, they must find out what the connection is between the people that Falk has killed.  Only by ferreting out the murderer’s past can they account for his present – and ascertain who it is he will try to kill next.

The chase proceeds with the detectives locked in a struggle with the German police commander in charge of the criminal investigation. For reasons that are not initially clear, this police Commissar seems determined to steer the probe away from the bodies found in the slaughterhouse.

The body count continues to climb and each time Morgan’s investigators get close to the killer, he slips through their grasp. Then, after a breakthrough that shows them the connection between the people already slain, Morgan’s detectives are finally able to figure out the motive. Will they catch Falk in time to save his remaining targets?  Will the German police arrest the serial killer or continue to ignore the leads the private investigators have uncovered? To find out, you will simply have to read the book. I have disclosed more than enough already without revealing the ending.

On the other hand, you may want to skip this one entirely, even though it is selling like hotcakes and managed to find a spot in the New York Times top fiction list since it was released earlier this year. The reason? Despite the best efforts of Patterson and Sullivan, Private Berlin simply isn’t very interesting.

Considering what the authors have to work with, this is surprising: the action takes place in contemporary Germany; one subplot involves connections to the brutal East German secret police while another involves dens of prostitution where sado-masochistic sex is a specialty; and the murders range from private confrontations to a public assassination at an auto show in front of thousands of people. But even with all these things going for it, Private Berlin is a lot of empty prattle that seems to have become a bestseller because that’s what Patterson writes (his books have made the New York Times list 76 times since he retired from the advertising game and went full-time as an author).

Jack Morgan, who has played a key role in some of Patterson’s other novels about his crack international investigative agency, only takes up space in this story, letting other characters do all the heavy lifting in a way that makes you wonder why he bothered to fly in from the U.S. on the firm’s private jet. Another character is a middle-aged forensic genius who is given to wearing his graying long hair in a pony tail and sporting T-shirts advertising rock ‘n’ roll bands (an amalgam of NCIS’s Ducky and Abby?). Still another is a tough counter-terrorism expert who is physically imposing, but dumb enough to show light in a darkened forest so the villain can shoot him, effectively taking him out of the action at a critical juncture. Engel’s immediate boss seems to have been included in the book primarily to upbraid her ace investigator for not following company procedures.

Most of the people in the book remind me of those corny cardboard cutouts of celebrities they display at county fairs so you can get a picture standing next to Obama, Marilyn Monroe or somebody else famous: they look like real people but none of them have any substance.

And here’s an epic fail: the serial killer, himself, is basically a non-entity. Unlike Hannibal Lechter, whose character was so skillfully drafted by Thomas Harris that he cast a dark shadow over RedDragon and dominated The Silence of the Lambs, even though he was not the actual villain in either book, Patterson’s murderer, Mr. Falk, is simply a collection of random characteristics in Private Berlin.

When we have finished with all 448 pages of this pot-boiler, the impression we have of the man is that he likes rough trade sex, knows hundreds of ways to kill people, thinks he is smarter than everybody else in the world and has a couple of annoying speech tics – including ending sentences on a rising inflection with the word “Hmmm?” and making a clicking sound in the back of his throat when he is happy. These, incidentally, appear to have been added to the character merely so he would have some recognizable features to justify the action.

In a genre in which a believable serial killer has become an absolute requirement, Patterson goes through the motions in Private Berlin.  This failure to create a memorable villain is doubly infuriating considering that Patterson interlaces his third person narrative with a number of chapters in which his murderer directly addresses the reader in the first person. These soliloquies would be a perfect place to engender some reader interest in the villain.

For whatever reason, Patterson fails to make effective use of them.  In the final confrontation, Mattie Engel is forced to quiz Falk about why he has done all these terrible things, just like a detective in a English “cozy” published in the 1930s. Despite its reliance on high-tech detection and its 21st Century setting, Private Berlin climaxes in a classic drawing room interview with the investigator – only without the Earl Grey and buttered scones.

All these flaws are deal-breakers in my opinion, but the real reason I can’t recommend Private Berlin is its idiot plot.

As the novel makes clear, the only reason Falk is bumping his victims off is because they all have some connection to a life that he has already effectively erased. He calls himself “The Invisible Man,” and likens himself to the character played by Claude Rains in the old Universal horror film based on H.G. Wells’ novel: he has changed his identity, changed his appearance and built a new profession so removed from his past that nobody would normally give him a second look.

All he has to do is leave Germany and take a new home in another country. But while he is humping a prostitute in a brothel owned by an Eastern European gangster, one of his past victims recognizes his voice. His voice, mind you – she doesn’t even see his face because he is wearing a mask. Falk finds out and instead of taking the substantial fortune he has amassed from victims he murdered in his past life and fleeing the country, he sets up a laborious plot to methodically eliminate a handful of people who do not know he even still exists. After which he apparently intends to start a new life somewhere else, anyway.

Instead, he lingers and kills, drawing unnecessary attention to himself in the process. 

Let me clarify why this is idiot plot in all its rank stupidity: all the Private investigator has to go on is a secondhand report from someone who recognized the voice of a masked man in a brothel. He still does not know the man’s new name, what he looks like, where he resides, or how he earns a living. Despite this, this ace detective arranges to meet Falk at the slaughterhouse – without contacting anybody at his agency to tell them where he will be or what he is doing.

But wait, there’s more: not only does the detective have bupkus, but it turns out that the woman who recognized Falk’s voice has already been murdered when he gets to the slaughterhouse. This means everything the dead woman told him is hearsay and of no evidentiary value. So without a first-hand witness, there is no reason for Falk to lure him there and kill him in the first place.

I expect the criminals in an Elmore Leonard or George V. Higgins novel to do stupid stuff like this because they are portrayed by their authors as “half-smart” – people just intelligent enough to get themselves into trouble. By contrast, Falk is supposed to be a master criminal, an evil genius, but to me it is obvious no one but a moron would do what he does.

In the final analysis, it may be the more exotic aspects of Private Berlin that doom the book from page one. Patterson and his co-author spend so much time and energy talking about high tech detection methods, post-wall German real estate, computer technology, ex-Stasi thugs, Russian gangsters and other subjects that are only marginally related to the actual plot that they lose track of the need to tell a straightforward and compelling story.

Ironically, in No Place to Die, a serial killer tale I recently reviewed in these blogs, author James Thane tells a similar story – his murderer draws his motive from events that occurred far in the past and has worked out his crimes carefully. He even has a redoubt like Falk’s slaughterhouse where he takes one of the people he intends to kill.

But Thane minimizes the cardboard cutout figures in his cast of characters and works to make his serial killer as believable as the woman he kidnaps and holds hostage or the detective who is trying to capture him.  This not only makes the tension between the main characters more credible, but allows him to toggle the narrative between them, which is a good way to distract the reader from logical inconsistencies in their behavior.

The conspiracy theory that underlies the plot in Private Berlin -- and the numerous subplots, all red herrings inserted in an unsuccessful attempt to keep the story’s mystery alive – simply clutter the novel and make the story less straightforward and compelling. The result is a novel that seems to waste its exotic locale and full-throttle opening.

If this is the best that Patterson can do, I’ll be avoiding his stuff in the future.

I give Private Berlin only one noose.

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