Sunday, April 29, 2007

"Along Came a Spider" by James Patterson (Thriller, Spoiler Warning)

This is another Alex Cross novel. Actually, according to the back cover, this is the first Alex Cross novel. So I guess this is the one that started the now-famous, bestselling series.

Like the other Alex Cross novels I've read, this one was highly addictive once I started. There's a very high "unputdownable" level here.

This time around, Cross is trying to solve a kidnapping case and a homicide, which turn out to be connected.

The novel introduces Gary Soneji, a villain who will haunt cross in some of the other novels in the series.

The kidnapping that occurs is a high-profile case, involving a couple of children whose parents are very well-off, important people. There's a lot of publicity, and the case necessitates some co-operation between various law enforcement agencies. Cross, a police detective, ends up working with Jezzie Flanagan of the Secret Service. Flanagan is brilliant at her job and an intensely driven over-achiever.

Alex and Jezzie end up in a relationship. One that gets quite steamy, quite fast. Maybe it's the tension of working on such a tough case, making emotions run high.

Cross and his associates frantically try to find the kidnapper, with the hope that they'll find the victims still alive. But there are some problems along the way that take up time while they still don't solve the case.

Eventually, a suspect is found, taken into custody and charged. The story of the trial is, of course, a media circus. But it turns out that the person on trial might not have been the kidnapper. This person has all the signs of a multiple personality. Cross, upon interviewing the suspect, even goes as far as employing hypnosis to try to see into the mind of the criminal, and comes away with two possible conclusions. Either this really is a case of multiple personality(or dissociative personality disorder, as some psychologists prefer to call it) or this criminal is a superb actor, manipulating everyone masterfully into believing mpd is to blame here.

And that would mean that sending the accused to prison might be punishing the guilty personality, as well as the innocent one. That could be a tough problem for a jury to grapple with.

But there's another consideration. One of the kidnapping victims still hasn't been found, and for all anyone knows, might still be alive.

Cross finds out later that the suspect they have in custody might not be the only person who was involved in the kidnapping. And the evidence he finds turns out to be very ugly. Someone - possibly more than just one person - from within law enforcement itself might have turned dirty and had a hand in the crimes.

As per usual with Alex Cross novels, there's an intense, fast-paced plot. There are also some nice character developments. I thought one of the supporting characters had a very intriguing character arc. Jezzie has to struggle with some personal problems, when her frustration with the case makes her start to doubt herself. As a constant over-achiever, it's hard for her to accept failure.

I don't want to give away the ending, so I'll say no more about the plot.

This novel does raise some interesting thematic questions about justice. In cases of severe mental disorders, what should be done with accused persons? Is it right to punish them the same way a demonstrably sane person would be? I guess you could argue that it's best that such a person at least be kept somewhere where they can be closely supervised, if they've done something harmful and dangerous to others. But maybe such people should be studied closely. If, some day, somebody can find a definitive cause for such mental disorders, it would be a first step towards being able to prevent them.

It's worth trying, isn't it?

Sunday, April 22, 2007

"The Matarese Circle" by Robert Ludlum

This is a fast-paced spy thriller with a wild plot full of many twists and turns. As is typical of Ludlum, everything seems to happen while characters are frantically running from one thing to another, or fighting, or killing or trying to avoid being killed. Violence and intensity are the order of the day.

Interestingly, it has been suggested that Ludlum loosely based "The Matarese Circle" on a real organization, "The Trilateral Commission." I'm not sure if that's true or not, though.

Two agents, one Russian, one American, are the lead characters. Scofield is American, and Taleniekov is Russian. Both men are at a point in their lives when they are close to retiring from active service. The two men know each other, and have a history that gives each reason to hold a personal vendetta against the other. And both become implicated in murders of high-level officials in their respective countries.

This forces them to work together to get at the truth behind the murders.

What ensues is a chase across Europe, and a shocking interview with an old woman who witnessed the birth of the Matarese Circle. This organization has lurked in the shadows for decades, slowly working its schemes. It is bent on creating worldwide chaos, and believes that a kind of anarchy would be better than current political structures. But it might be a kind of revenge, since the Matarese Circle is the child of someone who lost a fortune and blames the world as it exists for his downfall.

Scofield and Taleniekov have to work against the clock, as both of their governments are after them. This creates a lot of tension on all sides - tension between the two, tension because their own people are after them, and tension over getting at the truth before it's too late.

One thing Ludlum does in this novel that is intriguing is show how stories that appear in the news could have bigger implications. Like when several people who were in on the conspiracy are killed, it's explained in the press as an unfortunate accident, but Scofield knows the truth.

Ludlum keeps things interesting throughout - my edition is over five hundred pages long, none of it dull. Now, in some ways, the main plot seemed a little predictable of spy thrillers - secret organization is determined to take over the world - 0r, in this case, bring it into chaos. We've seen that before. Look at just about any James Bond story. But, Ludlum is good at his genre, he creates so much conflict and tension among the characters, that the story feels especially intense, even for a spy thriller. And there are a lot of nice little details along the way, about locations, and people, that give the descriptions a good sense of authenticity and make the reader see the characters' viewpoints.

Also, there is a plot twist I found interesting. I'd rather not give it away, and it is something that's been used in other novels, sometimes in the mystery genre. But it was still a nice twist, near the end.

One thing that writers in this genre have to be careful of, is making sure that the characters don't appear to solve problems too fast, and get to the final conclusions too easily. But Ludlum never falls into that trap. Actually, much of this novel shows the characters going through the painstaking, step-by-step process of tracking down the clues and figuring out the mystery. That approach is one of the reasons the novel easily fills over five hundred pages.

I tend to find Ludlum very consistent. He developed a style that he was good at, that his readers liked, and he closely stuck with it. But, each novel still has new ideas, and new characters and plot points that make it very unique. So if you've enjoyed any of Ludlum's other works, you'll probably like this, too.