January 21, 2012

J.W. Rider

My copy of Hot Tickets.

Shane Stevens wrote two pseudonymous novels under the name J.W. Rider. Jersey Tomatoes and Hot Tickets feature a private investigator named Malone, an ex-seminarian and ex-F.B.I. agent now in business for himself in Jersey City. They’re both decent novels, but despite the awards and the praise, including a cover-blurb from Frank Sinatra, they’re my least favorite of Stevens’ work.

Yes, the first person narrative is engaging. Malone’s an interesting protagonist. Unlike a lot of his characters, Malone is funny and could have easily carried the series for several more books.

Yes, even in such an uncharacteristic work as a humorous P.I. novel, Shane is still skilled at setting and brings Jersey City to life on the page.

Yes, all his themes are still there: the bullshit that keeps us from connecting to another human being, a strong sense of moral justice, and the twisted shadow of the American Dream.

But--

The problem is Stevens builds each book along the same lines and seems to have written them by the numbers. In the Shamus-winning first novel, a shady real estate developer hires Malone to find who’s been making threats on his life while an anti-religious activist wants him to investigate her mother’s apparent suicide. The follow-up finds Shane’s detective trying to help out a stripper who’s studying to be an Episcopalian minister and, again, investigating death threats--this time against a pro wrestler named Samson. Each time the two separate cases prove to be connected and wind together to violent conclusion.

You could make the argument that Stevens is following genre formula. Sometimes, there's nothing wrong with that. Sometimes, you want to read something familiar--a book you know what you're going to get from the beginning. The problem is his formula, even with all his strengths as a writer, produces only a convoluted and complicated plot mess mired in poor transitions and unbroken stretches of hard-to-follow dialogue. It’s just a poor effort from a writer capable of far better.

What sticks with me about both Malone novels is a single question. It's what I've come to think of as Stevens' question--

Why?
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