Along Came a Spider (Alex Cross, Book 1) - James Patterson

...but probably 49%.

Call it a 2.75.

 

A while ago I decided to do what I termed "The Castle Poker Challenge": to read one book from each of the authors that appeared in the pulp-writer poker sessions in the TV show Castle.  Unfortunately for me, James Patterson was a "regular" at the poker matches, which meant that I finally had to try out one of his books.

Despite my library's fondness for the author, I've been avoiding Patterson like the plague, because, to be honest, I consider  his "co-author" thing to be a rather unethical scam.

 

For my Castle Poker Challenge read, I decided to pick out the first book of his most famous series.  Along Came A Spider introduces us to Alex Cross, a DC detective who also happens to be a psychologist. When a peculiar and high-profile child kidnapping comes up, Cross is pulled off of his investigation of a serial-killer in the projects and put on the case. The story switches between first-person passages from Alex and third-person passages from the perspective of the kidnapper himself.  Although the reader is quickly apprised of the identity of one of the antagonists, Cross soon discovers that he's fallen into a veritable web of conspiracy.

 

I was expecting utterly mind-numbing garbage, so maybe that explains my comparatively pleased reaction.  Although Patterson isn't subtle, artful, or poetic--I would guess the average sentence length is something like four or five words-- the book is readable, despite quite a bit of awkward phrasing and an utter disregard for the "show-not-tell" mantra. There story also contains a collection of amusingly cringe-worthy passages like this...interesting...example of a sex scene:

"Her long legs suddenly lifted straight out of the water and hooked around my head. [X] jerked forward a couple of times, then both of us exploded. Her body went stiff. We thrashed and moaned a lot. "

My biggest complaint against the book is sheer laziness.  The complete absence of research is utterly astounding to me, and as a nitpickingly details-oriented reader, I was increasingly irritated by the stupid mistakes.  Alex Cross is supposedly a psychologist, but he apparently practices TV psychology, because I don't know anyone else that would diagnose someone as "neurotic" or hypnotise a defendant actually on the stand[1]  I also can't understand how a psychologist would neglect to distinguish between a patient and a prisoner under evaluation. His whole attitude seems wrong to me; he tends to manipulate and direct rather than simply listen. Granted, given that this is the second Alex the Detective-Psychologist that I've encountered of late, I was probably even more unforgiving than usual.

 

And then there's the court case itself.  It's sort of like a TV-show court, only less accurate.[2]  The lawyers keep protesting various things without stating what rule of evidence was broken, and the judge appears to not realise that his rulings are supposed to vaguely relate to rules and regulations.  The defence even abruptly calls someone who is just sitting in the court-- without a subpoena or any previous disclosure to the court or the individual-- as (I quote) a "hostile witness," which even I know is a misuse of the term. And then, right after declaring the witness hostile, the lawyers keep going back and forth about "leading" the witness.  A witness...for the defense... who has been declared hostile.  Yep.[3]

 

This laziness isn't limited to an absolute absence of research; it's also present in characterization and plot.  Patterson has a weird habit of ignoring characters who aren't currently on the scene; for example, Cross only mentions his kids the three or four times they directly figure into the narrative.  It's unrealistic to have a single parent with two young kids never think about his own kids.  There are plenty of other absences; for example, I thought it was strange that we see almost nothing from the parents of the kidnapped kids. I figured it was intentional until Cross later says that he has spent significant time with them and feels like he knows them.  The weirdness is carried into descriptions as well: Patterson tends to introduce characters with sparse or no physical descriptions.  Then, long after the character has become part of the "regular cast," he suddenly charges into details about their appearances or voices.  Overall, it felt like the characters and scenes were cardboard cutouts, and that Patterson jammed in descriptions on the random occasions when he mentioned to do so.  Rather than a subtle intimation of emotions, either the third-person narrator or the characters themselves will blithely tell the reader exactly what they are thinking or feeling at any particular moment.  The mystery, too, is somewhere between non-existent and ridiculously clichéd. 

 

However, despite the multitude of flaws, the book pulled me in enough that I gladly made it through to the end.  I'm not exactly sure why, but I was hooked.  It may have had something to do with the media: I listened to the book on audio, and the narrators added an impressive amount of nuance and emotion to the story.  In fact, whenever I could stop my eyes from rolling, I quite enjoyed the ride.

 

[1] But don't worry, they brought red leather armchairs into the court, so it's totally kosher!

[2] I'm a little impressed: I wasn't sure that was even possible.

[3] Patterson appears to think subpoenas are used to force people to talk to the police. Dead serious--a witness refuses to talk to Detective Cross and he threatens to subpoena him until he does. Ye gods.