Wednesday, April 16, 2008

TERROR TOWN, by Stuart M. Kaminsky


I figured I'd stick with the Detective-Novel genre after finishing THE BLACK ECHO, so I picked this book off the pile. I was having a great time with the first 80 pages of it, too, largely because of its distinctions from Connelly's story. Where Bosch is bleak and distancing, Abe Lieberman is droll and approachable. He cracks jokes, even with suspects, but still handles things with competence and courage. He's not afraid to pistol-whip a perp if the situation demands it. And the tone of Kaminsky's Chicago is decidedly lighter than Connelly's bleak view of L.A. There is still crime and fear, and moments of shocking violence, in Lieberman's world, but these things do not dominate the lives of the characters. If anything, the characters' resilience, the fact that they continue with their lives despite the occasional rough patches, seems to typify the Kaminsky tone. It's nice to see a novel that can handle murder and extortion while maintaining a levity that doesn't slight the murder and extortion.

So for the first 80 pages, I was having fun with this book. And the fun of those first 80 carried me through to the middle before I started getting frustrated. After the middle, the fun's momentum started fading away. By the end, I was pretty fed up.

The problem arises from two of the things that make this book different from THE BLACK ECHO. The first difference relates to the character distinctions, specifically Bosch's lone-wolf approach compared to Lieberman's existence within a community. The second difference relates to THE BLACK ECHO's status as first of a series, while TERROR TOWN is the 9th of the Lieberman novels. Neither of these differences are directly responsible for the shortcomings of TERROR TOWN, but those shortcomings do develop directly from the way these differences are handled.

First of all, let's look at the problems arising from the community of characters in Lieberman's world. Besides Lieberman we've got his wife and grandchildren and daughter and brother and brother's wife--even the customer's who frequent Lieberman's brother's diner get page time. Then we've also got Lieberman's partner, Hanrahan, and Hanrahan's wife. Then there's another detective: Little Duke DuPree. Thrown in with these folks are more Police Officers, lawyers, informants, plus members of the underworld that the detectives associate with, even the criminals themselves. All of these characters have things that happen to them, stories that develop, a turn on the stage. It's way too much for a 240 page novel. It leads the author into artless text focused on filling the reader in on past stories. It's confusing and disjointed and it compels Kaminsky to make each story so simple and short that none of them have the chance to develop into anything really interesting.

The other problem actually relates to this one, too. This book is the ninth in a series, and it reads more like an episode in a larger work than a story that stands on its own. A lot of what happens in TERROR TOWN focuses on developing the individual characters' stories, instead of exploring a crime. Three crimes (one for Lieberman, one for Hanrahan, and one for DuPree) are actually used as three pivots to wind those family stories around, but none of the crimes actually connect with the others, and we also get a lot of family info that doesn't have anything to do with the crimes themselves. So there isn't any central plot to this book. It's more like an episode in a soap opera than a crime novel.

And if these basic flaws weren't enough to frustrate me, the cases themselves come to outrageous, infuriating, utterly moronic "twist" endings. Two things presented as fact throughout the novel are later revealed as untrue, though the reader is given scant evidence to foreshadow this. I felt like pitching the book in the shredder straight off once I finished it.

(I'm tempted to talk about the similarities between Connelly's Vietnam Vet angle and Kaminsky's focus on ethnicities, the way each author uses these flavors to spice the plot, because I thought the similarities were interesting. But the truth is I've had enough of TERROR TOWN, and I don't want to spend any more time with it.)

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