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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, January 25, 2014

L.T. Ryan Betrays His Readers in His Latest Espionage Novel

By L.T. Ryan

File Size: 433 KB
Print Length: 247 pages
eBook sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

L.T. (“Lee”) Ryan's  Beyond Betrayal is a story without characters, action, a logical plot or an explanation as to why any of the things that occur in its 240-odd pages have happened. It could easily be the worst espionage novel I have ever cracked open – and maybe the worst genre novel of any variety.

It cost me only 99 cents to purchase through Amazon and that was about 67 cents more than it was worth. Avoid it at all costs.

Beyond Betrayal’s plot – to the extent it has one – is fairly straightforward: Clarissa Abbott, the heroine, is a deep cover agent working under a non-civil-service contract with an unnamed U.S. intelligence agency. She has infiltrated a terrorist group in London, but is pulled off the assignment without explanation and called back to participate in a top secret mission in Washington D.C.

Once she arrives, she is cast into a nest of disgruntled bureaucrats who seem bitter, ambitious and utterly untrustworthy. She is given conflicting information about who she is supposed to be working for and what she is supposed to be doing.  She suspects she has been immersed in this situation so she can be quietly slain or used as the scapegoat in a murderous conspiracy. She’s convinced she has been set up to be a victim of the capitol’s bureaucratic rivalries and the perfidy of her own employers.

That’s as good as it gets. Really. This novel has enough content to write a two-paragraph pitch memo, but not enough for a compelling 300-plus page novel.

Ryan’s been around for a while now and his webpage indicates he has written six books in his Jack Noble series alone.  You would think with that kind of experience to his credit, he would at least be competent as a storyteller. You'd be wrong.

Author L.T. Ryan, courtesy of Amazon.com

Clarissa Abbott, the heroine, remains a cypher throughout the book. There are hints that she has a tragic past, but Ryan is too lazy, arrogant or indifferent to his readers to tell us about it.

As he told fans in his blog when he served up an excerpt from the novel before it was released in late December, “I’ll let you know upfront, there’s not a lot of info dumping or back story thrown into this book. By this point, you know that’s not how I write.”

All we know about Clarissa is that she spends most of the novel fretting about her situation and passively observing what the other characters do. This is not a particularly solid grounding for a heroine to have, and readers will end up feeling little sympathy for her character. The only person in the novel who gets shorter shrift than Clarissa is the chief villain – and all we know about him by the end of the book is that he recruited her, he’s a bad guy and his name is Sinclair.

In fact, most of the characters in Beyond Betrayal are as superficial and uninvolving as the heroine and the villain: not a single one of them does or says anything interesting or original during the course of the book. They appear, do whatever business Ryan has assigned them, then disappear again. Some are introduced and shuffled off stage so perfunctorily that they are not even given names, let alone personalities.

The only one who is rewarded with an actual personality is a bureaucrat named Julie Polanski who is stuck in middle management at an agency she hates and lets Clarissa know she is bitter about it. We actually end up knowing a damn sight more about Polanski than we do about Abbott, even though Clarissa is the focal point of the story.

Ryan’s failure to give us a character with any history or depth is a sufficiently epic fail to make Beyond Betrayal a wash-out from the jump.  But the writer compounds this error with a series of other writing gaffes that render the book a complete waste of time.

For one thing, the novel is almost completely bereft of thrills, even though it is supposed to be a thriller.

Readers turn more than a third of the novel’s pages before anything actually of substance happens: an attempt to assassinate the vice-president of the United States. And when that attempt finally occurs, no explanation that makes any sense is ever offered for it. It is simply a plot mechanism that moves the story from a seemingly endless holding pattern to a chase sequence ending in a bloody gun battle at Boston’s Logan Airport.

If the reader is hoping that firefight will provide some sort of catharsis, or at least an explanation of what has gone before, he or she is going to be disappointed:

"As the officers pulled Clarissa to her feet, she caught one last glimpse of Sinclair. A single thought ran through her mind: why? Why had he done this? No one benefitted from it. Not even him. Or did he? She doubted she'd ever find out."

Ryan pads his novel with endless descriptive passages delivered in a tersely Hemingwayesque prose style. These passages fail to move the story forward even a millimeter but fill so many pages you would swear he was being paid by the word. An example:

“The guy took a step forward. A couple walking along the outer edges of the corridor took two steps in. The man nodded, flashed a smile and merged into the line. He was three paces in front of [Clarissa]. She glanced down at his shoes. They looked expensive. The soles were hard and thick. The uppers made from leather.  A lot of the guys paid for custom shoes, she’d heard. They wanted comfort, the ability to kick ass and to look good.”

Honest, folks. I am not making this shit up. It’s really that bad.

If this sort of boring tripe had the purpose of setting up a good action sequence, it might be forgiven. But Ryan’s idea of a heart-pounding action sequence is to have Clarissa and her largely anonymous handlers lead us on an endless series of treks down empty corridors in Washington D.C. government buildings. 

“[It] turned out that their time together ended ten minutes later,” Ryan writes, clumsily introducing one of these tedious strolls. “He led her through a maze of hallways, through break rooms, into one elevator then down a final hall. She struggled to figure out which direction she faced. He halted in front of a dark wooden floor.”

“’This is it for me,' he said. ‘Go on in. They’ll be along shortly.’ “

That was on page 30. If I had been thinking clearly, that would have been it for me, too. Instead I soldiered on through the rest of the book, waiting impatiently for something – anything – to happen.

In the blog entry in which Ryan posted an excerpt from this book, he referred to Clarissa as "obviously street smart." "Street smart" my fanny! For the most part she comes across as a brainless dipstick confronted by villains so stupid they couldn’t find their way out of a pay toilet with a roadmap and 24/7 GPS service.

When the going gets tough, Clarissa dissolves in hysterical tears and completely loses her ability to concentrate on anything but saving her own life. She drops her gun in the middle of one firefight and has to recover it from a cook in a restaurant kitchen. 

She fails to display even the most rudimentary skill at unarmed combat and remains under the physical control of her opponents throughout the novel. And even though she suspects everyone is plotting against her, she continues to readily offer them her trust and let them order her around like an intern in a corporate mailroom.

At several junctures she exclaims, “What in the hell is going on, Beck?” never once getting a coherent answer. I swear, if she had used the phrase one more time, I would have flushed my Kindle down the toilet.

The only thing Beyond Betrayal has right is its title: this novel betrays its readers in so many ways that nobody but a masochist would read it.

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