The Magazine

Murder Most Foul

A trio of approaches to the mystery novel.

Mar 12, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 25 • By JON L. BREEN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Drawbacks include Harlan Coben's overuse of one trendy but annoying locution (e.g., "The building had that decrepit thing going on . . ."), his impulse to valid-but-obtrusive mini-sermons on such topics as smoking and the stereotyping of fat women, and an inconsistency of tone that works against the moral issues raised and the reality of some of the characters. Is this a soap opera, or a situation comedy, or a superhero comic book?

The novel would have been better without Myron's psychopathic friend Win, a rich Caucasian variation on the over-the-top loose-cannon extralegal sidekick pioneered by Hawk in Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels, and Mouse in Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins series. Also blue-pencil-worthy are several comically exaggerated villains and obligatory walk-ons by series regulars who have nothing to do with the story.

On balance, though, this is a sure-fire crowd pleaser.

The Protégé, a sequel to the 2005 bestseller The Chairman, belongs to the glitz-and-glamour school of thriller writing, financial division. In an S-and-M session gone awry, title character David Wright accidentally kills his bondage subject by hanging, and acts to cover it up. As the most vocal, obnoxious, and promising managing director of Everest Capital, a multibillion-dollar Manhattan equity firm whose many interests include a new NFL franchise for Las Vegas and a Wal-Mart-like discount chain, Wright is so aggressive and tightly wound that his new stress is barely apparent to his boss. Chairman Christian Gillette is not a likable character, but since he turns into an action figure at every threat of violence, it's clear he's supposed to be the hero.

Stephen Frey knows the cutthroat financial world intimately, and deal-making is a feature throughout. But like pornography, the wow factor of very big numbers gets numbing after awhile, and more complications must be provided. A book with such perfunctory characterization has to be plot-driven, but this driver weaves all over the road. Among the elements: Gillette's search for his birth mother; the mystery of his senator-father's death in a plane crash years before; a wealthy femme fatale's threat to his romance with a world-famous singer; menacing killers apparently hanging over from the previous book, dealings with the Mafia families that still run Las Vegas; a storm at sea; a super-secret U.S. spy organization; hints of al Qaeda; and the science of nanotechnology with its far-future promise of extending life.

The reader may believe the numbers, but the scenes and the people constantly seem unreal. Gillette's meeting with the puppet NFL commissioner, an ex-player way out of his depth, is a case in point: Prose and dialogue are flat and undistinguished without being gratingly (or amusingly) bad. Early on, Frey depends on the by-the-numbers novelist's favorite trick: massive amounts of exposition in dialogue, with information clearly already known to the recipient passed along for the reader's benefit.

The final surprise may astonish somebody who's never read a mystery before. Frey has enough command of pace and story structure to divert you on your next long plane ride between billion-dollar deals, but only if there's nothing better at hand.

Jon Breen is the author, most recently, of Eye of God.