Sunday, March 22, 2009

New Release Spotlight: The Chemist and Diary of a Dead Man

Fratire is one dude reply to chick lit/flick; there’s also guy lit/flick, both less provocatively dubbed and more catch-all, which might include Fight Club to Big Fish. But there seems to be the need for another category—the most apt name that I’ve thought of so far for it being woody lit, after Woody Allen.

I am a fan of Allen’s films, but I undestand how the bumbling-yet-arrogant–old-man-yet-virile-lover characters that he plays can be laughable to fans and downright irritating to detractors. These are 1950s guys who have learned to be self-depracating, but they themselves don’t believe what they’re selling. And these are the heros of two of Bridgeway Books’ most recent mystery titles.

The Chemist is the overall stronger of the two, with solid layers—from the modern slave trade (of pretty white American women) and the work of a sociopathic everyman with a chemistry degree, to Green Bay Detective Cale Van Waring struggling with his girlfriend’s threat that he either commit to her with marriage or she moves out. The story is of the quality of a well-done made-for-television mystery movie—it holds the reader’s attention, through multiple storylines and also through details, such as dialog that sounds like it would be spoken by small-urban Midwest police—but it won’t last in a reader’s memory.

Not a cop story, Diary of a Dead Man stars the owner of a construction business who gets mixed up in a convoluted Internet scheme. It’s has a unique and modern plot, which is appreciated, but it’s highly unbelievable. Sometimes the best mysteries are—consider all the procedurals on television that must work to top each other with increasingly crazy twists week after week. But if the details that form that mystery’s foundation are shaky, that is definitely a problem. The narrator makes two major and telltale decisions at the beginning of the book—answering a stranger who somehow connects with him through his e-mail instant messaging system and covering up a murder—that simply don’t make sense from what the reader knows of him or comes to know of him. And even at a basic level, the instant messages that a lot of the drama is wrapped around and in are stiffly written.

Stephen King has called these types of books manfiction and says of them this: “What men want from an Elmore Leonard novel is exactly what women want from a Nora Roberts novel—escape and entertainment. And while it’s true that manfiction can be guilty of objectifying women, chick lit often does the same thing to men…Women like stories in which a gal meets a handsome (and possibly dangerous) hunk on a tropic isle; men like to imagine going to war against an army of bad guys with a Beretta, a blowtorch, and a submachine gun (grenades hung on the belt optional).”

Both of these are fine books in this way, but it’s troubling when that style crosses a line. In The Chemist, Van Waring’s lawyer girlfriend is raped by a convict who may have information on Van Waring’s case. She expresses anger and horror internally, but she never tells anyone, including the very boyfriend she longs to marry. She accepts the convict’s insistence that the “he said, she said” nature of the situation would be too difficult for her to overcome, and she puts it away so that her man doesn’t have to add it to his plate of worries.

It’s of course a possible reaction, but it’s an extreme example of all the character seems to be. In mainstream fiction, it’s okay if no one critiques a damsel’s wish to be saved or a knight’s wish to save—all readers can comprehend at least one of those needs, to at least some extent. But a writer shouldn’t weaken what is otherwise a perfectly nice fantasy with what is overall incomprehensible.

The Chemist

Janson Mancheski

Bridgeway Books

ISBN: 978-1-934454-28-2

Diary of a Dead Man

Walter Krumm

Bridgeway Books

ISBN: 978-1-934454-22-0

Review by Kristin Thiel of Indigo Editing & Publications

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