Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Radio Activity by Bill Fitzhugh

As a merchant of books, I am always a little depressed to see what the summer readers are buying. I always thought of the summer as a time to dig into the tomes that you normally don't have the hours to devote to; "I could toss off a John Grisham novel in a day or so, but since I have a vacation, why not take a stab at War and Peace?"

Nevertheless, I sometimes fall prey to an easy read, myself, and Fitzhugh's Radio Activity leaped upon me. This is a book I picked up for free from a cardboard box that a Stratford bookstore pulaces out front after hours. I tend to be less discerning with what I read when a book costs nothing, but I still try to pick something that sounds vaguely appealing. As I have mentioned before, I am generally not a fan of genre fiction, as it tends to be, by and large, poorly written. This mystery, however, is not at all illiterate, and I found it quite easy to engage with the story and its characters, and to finish reading it within a day.

The protagonist is a D.J. for a classic rock radio station-- an unlikely candidate to play detective, but an interesting character because he spends some time discussing music like the players in a Nick Hornby novel in between his crime-solving exploits.

I am eager to delve into a novel that is a little bit more dense, but whole heartedly enjoyed this humorous escapade as a poolside distraction.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A Quilted Heart

by R.M. Vaughan

I became interested in looking for one of Vaughan's books after hearing the poet/author/artist interviewed by Jian Ghomeshi on the CBC radio program "Q." His first novel, A Quilted Heart, was available at my public library, and judging the book by its cover (front and back), I concluded that "A murder-mystery-ghost-story-romance that manages to subvert all the traps of such genres" was worth looking into.

I was not bowled over by this gothic tale of ghostly revenge set in 1970's Montreal. The author is clever with language and his descriptive passages are vivid and moody, but I feel that the book's climax is a little thin given the intriguing possibilities Vaughan establishes earlier on. I anticipated a more satisfying confrontation between the characters than he delivers.

To his credit, however, Vaughan infuses a potentially trite melodrama with a degree of originality and wit. He is aware of literary conventions, and avoids generic pit-falls in an effective and subtle manner. Although the book is not entirely successful, it is interesting in the way that it weaves threads of the author's contemporary gay sensibility into a classical form of storytelling. At a novella length of 160 pages, A Quilted Heart is not daunting; should you stumble upon it, the book is worth a read, but I would not suggest seeking it out before finishing the stack on your bedside table.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Definitely Digging Dexter

A colleague of mine at a well known bookstore once told me that I reminded her of Dexter. At the time, I had neither read the books by Jeff Lindsay, nor seen the Showtime series on television. I knew enough to question, "You mean the serial killer guy?" She replied affirmatively, but would not go into detail regarding precisely how I might be likened to this character. Curiosity got the best of me, and I diligently devoured Dexter both in print and on-screen. If my friend-and-co-worker's comparison was intended to be complimentary, I can think of only two possible interpretations: (1) she recognized that I do not care for the abuse or murder of children, and/or (2) I am moderately good looking and my devious smile makes me all the more intriguing.

Rather than dwell on the alternatives, I will confine my thoughts to assessment of the materials.

Darkly Dreaming Dexter
At a smidge under 300 pages, the first book in the Dexter series can be aptly described as a "taut thriller." It's also a page-turner, but I tend to associate that term more with the James Patterson/Dan Brown type of formula: large print, three to five page chapters, each with a mini-cliffhanger. Darkly Dreaming, on the other hand, is hard to put down, not simply because the narrative is structured to maximize suspense (which it is), but also because Lindsay devises such clever situations in which to place his main character.

Dexter, forensic blood-spatter analyst for the Miami P.D. by day, serial killer by night, lives by a strict code: kill only those who deserve to die, hide the monster inside by feigning a normal life, and never get caught. These rules become increasingly difficult to follow when he is asked to use his intuitive "expertise" to help solve the case of the "Ice Truck Killer," a murderous fiend whose methods Dexter rather admires. He soon begins to realize that the killer is initiating communication with Dexter directly, albeit in a code of dead bodies, and his proximity to the case poses a threat to his darkest secrets.

One of the pleasures of the book is that the sub-plots dealing with Dexter's family and his romantic life (such as it is) are as captivating as the mystery itself. The story is delivered via Dexter's emotionless internal monologue and his perception of human relationships is rife with demented wit. With a dark sense of humour, an eye for character detail, and canny use of language, Lindsay has crafted a sophisticated piece of genre fiction.

Dearly Devoted Dexter
Lindsay's second novel is one of those rare sequels that surpasses its predecessor. The main plot line in this installment is richer and darker than the first, and the author is not afraid to subject his main characters to unexpected fates. The killer at large in Dearly Devoted employs techniques that even Dexter recognizes as particularly gruesome, and to complicate matters Dexter's step-sister's new beau is on the murderer's list of potential victims.

So is Dexter's nemesis, Sgt. Doakes, a colleague on the police force who has always been suspicious of Dexter's extra-curricular activities. Doakes' close watch has prevented Dexter from engaging in his after-hours hobby, and Dex must choose whether to let the new killer on the block take care of the problem for him, or assist with the investigation in order to safeguard his sister from heartbreak.

Meanwhile, Dexter's relationship with girlfriend Rita and her two children is unexpectedly locomoting towards the next level. Again, it is the weight that Lindsay devotes to his main character's domestic life and aptitude as a possible father figure that adds layers to what could have been a somewhat generic mystery. And as he does in the first novel, Jeff Lindsay satiates his readers in the relatively short span of 300 pages. This book is a riveting, fast-paced read that doesn't sacrifice intelligence for the sake of formula.

Dexter in the Dark
The third installment of Dexter, in my opinion, fails to capture the sharpness and economy of storytelling that Lindsay so expertly displays in his first two novels. Perhaps I have undersold the importance of the main plot lines, the mysteries that drive the narrative forward in the Dexter series; the domestic story that I find so captivating remains strong in The Dark, but the police hunt for mass-murderer #3 is a bit too sprawling. Revelations about the identity of this killer are deliberately withheld until the last few pages and, for the first time, the reader is left without a sense of closure. In one sense, this ensures the continuation of the series, but I can't help but feel that the formula of the first two novels was just as effective in doing so, and more satisfactory in terms of the final pay-off.

My biggest issue with the story, however, is Lindsay's apparent need to justify Dexter's actions; he introduces a plot line that speculates upon the origin of Dexter's "Dark Passenger" (the voice or "force" that urges him to kill). One of the elements that makes the first two books so poignant is the fact that Lindsay filters everyday life through the eyes of a man who lacks emotion and connection. If Dexter is driven by supernatural forces, the satirical edge of the novels might be lost.

The Series
The creators of the Showtime series made two great decisions: (1) to adapt the plot of the first novel faithfully while expanding the story to flesh out twelve episodes, and (2) to diverge from the novels afterwards. A two-hour film may not have done justice to the complexity of Dexter's world, and a television show-- even one on cable-- probably wouldn't have been able to depict the graphic scenes in Dearly Devoted Dexter without alienating some viewers.

I don't espouse censorship, but I really believe that some of the material in Lindsay's second novel is more effective when left to the imagination. It is interesting to have two different interpretations of the Dexter character, each of them so aptly attuned to their medium of presentation. What I am trying to say is that the television series is, so far, doing an excellent job of capturing the spirit of the Dexter novels and developing the material into an exceptional show.

Whether or not I am akin to Dexter in any way remains a mystery. The upside of the comparison is that it inspired me to visit the books and the series, and to discover two well crafted avenues of entertainment.