Though it was good news for everybody else, the collapse of the Soviet Union caused a crisis for America’s commercial-thriller industry. Now that political themes are fading from the literary imagination, taking their place are monsters that are much closer to home: serial killers, criminal psychopaths, and child abusers. That’s assuming, of course, that literary is the right word to describe unlikely tales that read less like novels and more like scenarios for action-adventure films, complete with fabulous babes in peril and climactic shoot-outs in picturesque locations.
Take James Patterson’s Kiss the Girls, an absurd concoction featuring not one but two depraved serial killers, an entire harem of gorgeous young things to be sexually assaulted and gleefully dismembered, and a two-fisted maverick cop with a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins. Dr. Alex Cross is his name and he’s a Washington, D.C., homicide detective with the mind of Sigmund Freud and the physique of the young Muhammad Ali. What’s ironic in a novel whose characters — even the villains — all have perfect bodies and astronomical SAT scores is Patterson’s mawkish, Penthouse Pet of the Month prose style.
So anyhow, there are these two stunningly handsome, fiendishly intelligent maniacs on the loose — one in North Carolina, the other in L.A. Can our intrepid detective find them and blow them away? Well, what do you think? If author Patterson had half the zeal for criminal psychology and police investigative techniques that he has for describing grisly scenes of sexual torture, he might sustain the reader’s interest. But he hasn’t, and the result is a lazy, predictable mishmash of cliches.
Stuart Woods’ comparatively elegant Imperfect Strangers, by contrast, openly borrows its premise from an Alfred Hitchcock film. Two men meet on an airplane from London to New York, are inexplicably shown the 1951 classic Strangers on a Train as an in-flight movie, then casually agree to bump off each other’s wives. By the time wine merchant Sandy Kinsolving succumbs to conscience and decides to call the whole thing off, his partner in crime has come to exactly the opposite conclusion. But what may work in Hitchcock films, with their black-comic overtones, comes across in print as simply and utterly unbelievable. As satire, Imperfect Strangers might have worked. But no amount of ingenious plotting, of which there’s plenty, can save this misconceived tale from its flawed premise.
A happy exception to the pattern is Richard North Patterson’s Eyes of a Child, an ingenious legal thriller actually written for people who enjoy reading novels. A sequel of sorts to Patterson’s highly successful Degree of Guilt, it turns aristocratic defense attorney Chris Paget into a murder suspect with so vivid a motive and so weak an alibi that even his own attorney, his colleague, his teenage son, and his lover, Terri Peralta, come to believe that he must have committed the crime.
The story turns upon an accusation of child abuse brought by Terri’s scheming, lowlife, estranged husband, Ricardo Arias, against Paget’s son, Carlo. Arias lodges the charge as his trump card in a bitter custody fight with Terri over their daughter, Elena, then turns up all too conveniently dead-an apparent suicide.
But Inspector Charles Monk, Paget’s formidable antagonist last time around, doesn’t buy that. Neither does the district attorney, partly because Arias was a despicable creep who richly deserved to be knocked off. Alas, for all of Patterson’s ingenuity, most veteran mystery readers will easily guess Arias’ murderer’s identity. But such are the pleasures of the author’s vivid depiction of the law’s ironies and paradoxes — the trial alone occupies more than half the novel — that readers are apt to remain engrossed until the final page. Kiss the Girls: D Imperfect Strangers: C Eyes of a Child: B+