Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Bookshelf: The Beach House by James Patterson & Peter De Jonge

When I was given this book, I saw an opportunity to take a look at modern thriller fiction, which is something I don't normally pay much attention to. James Patterson is one of those writers whose books you see everywhere, and he makes no secret of relying on co-authors to deliver the apparent hundreds of titles expected of him per year. Far be it from me to look down on popular fiction; there is an art to a good page-turner, to making the reader feel they just have to see what happens next. The Beach House isn't a complete letdown on this front, to be sure, but it's a toothless experience, a conspiracy thriller which avoids visceral bite in favor of vague class-awareness posturing.

The book begins with the murder of Peter Mullen, a young man working as a valet for a party at the titular beach house in East Hampton. His body is thrown in the ocean and his death ruled a suicide, but his brother Jack, an attorney, refuses to believe it. He's convinced the wealthy Neubauer family, who owned the place, are covering something up, and tries to rally the rest of the non-insanely-wealthy townsfolk to find out what it is. Of course the Neubauers are powerful enough to obstruct investigations, buy off or intimidate witnesses, get people fired, and much, much worse. Jack puts his career on the line trying to discover the truth, and eventually finds he has to go outside the law to get justice.

It's a strong enough hook. The authors aren't exactly subtle when it comes to working the angles of class conflict and the unlimited powers of the 1%. The Mullen family are true working-class salt of the earth folk, and so are most of the people in East Hampton, and much of the story is them being pushed around and increasingly ground into the dirt by the Neubauers and friends. Frankly, it starts to get repetitive after a while, without much progress into the mystery. A good thriller depends on the slow unravelling of the plot, either showing the audience more of the story or pretending to do so. What revelations do take place aren't earth-shattering enough to justify the slow drip.

Part of the problem may simply be the prose. Books like this don't sell themselves on their master wordcraft, but one should probably still expect a certain intensity or punch to the writing in a thriller. This is mostly just dull and functional, not helped by the generic personality of the first person narrator whom the book occasionally just abandons anyway for the sake of a few vignettes focused on a shadowy "fixer". Too often the book tries to go for the heartstrings when it should be punching us in the gut, trying to evoke working class sympathy instead of terrifying us.

Despite these problems I will say I kept reading, and was curious as to how it turned out. But any chance I might give the book a pass as a page-turner evaporated with the climax, which quickly becomes too ridiculous even for the standards of cheap summer reading. It's not just that the set-up strains credulity, which it does, but it attempts to draw itself out over such a long period of time as to kill all the tension. There's a really intense and brutal scene buried in the last several chapters (this is one of those books which drops chapter breaks every two pages), but it's spread out over several days with time for a sex scene, an abortive chase, even a positive shout-out to Geraldo Rivera of all people.

It may be inevitable that a book like The Beach House ends up bland. Patterson and his various writing partners (who according to some do most of the work) are part of a machine plugging out these things in absurd numbers. To be sure, many of the things that drag the book down for me are part of that successful formula; ultra-sharp delineation between the heroes and villains, bare and functional writing, and a glowing sense of assurance that of course the hero will win. I can accept these things in their proper place, but in The Beach House they're tension killers, and the book's attempt at populist appeal seems desperate, pandering. There's an art to writing good popular fiction, arguably one that is not given the scrutiny it deserves. When we let our standards get too lax, dull reads result.

Grade: C

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