Monday, September 8, 2008

Don't Say A Word Does One Thing Well

Having been made into a movie starring Michael Douglas, Don’t Say A Word could be called Andrew Klavan’s best-known work. It’s also a work that pinpoints every parent’s worst fear and gives it a good hammering. Dr. Nathan Conrad -- dubbed Psychologist of the Damned for his willingness to take on difficult cases -- awakes one morning to find that his daughter Jessica isn’t in her bed. Then comes the phone call. A stranger on the other end says that, yes, he has Jessica and he’ll give her back -- if Conrad can pry a number from the head of a violent schizophrenic. He has until 9 p.m. The clock, as they say, is ticking.

I don’t know what I was expecting from the book. Klavan is an interesting breed of writer, a Jewish Christian with staunchly conservative convictions. But none of that ideology turns up here. (To be fair, his religious and political viewpoints seem a recent development, and Don’t Say A Word was published in 1991). Neither do any particularly well-rounded characters. The novel’s inhabitants are flatter than microfiche, which is fine for fables but not for more-or-less realistic works. Also absent is a winning prose style. The proceedings are wordily narrated, with chunks of text italicized and repeated to convey emotional import, while a hearty sprinkling of profanity attempts to add punch.

The novel excels at one point, though, and I don’t mean that as a left-handed compliment. Fortunes have been built on a single excellence, and Klavan frames his novel on a solid foundation of suspense. Adhering to Hitchcock’s old dictum that “
whenever possible the public must be informed,” he tells you everything. He tells you of Conrad’s frail physical and mental condition, of Jessica’s helpless terror, of the schizophrenic’s scrambled sense of reality, of a monstrous villain’s sick sadism. Most of all, as the story runs he tells you about time, which is always in short supply and ever-decreasing. The result is an almost unbearable climax that spikes your heart rate and nails you to your chair. Klavan might not do all things well, but when he succeeds he does so mightily. That’s enough to make stop at the “K” section of the bookshelf the next time I’m looking to while away a weekend.

(Picture: CC by
Hey Hey mee)


Chestertonian Rambler said...

I recently went on a Klavan kick. "The Uncanny was a decent horror story--though I admit I'd have probably liked it a lot better if I hadn't gone in expecting a delicious ghost story (which it isn't.)

But Dynamite Road and Shotgun Alley were something entirely different. I can't decide whether or not to stick them on my equivalent of the "Middle Shelf." On the one hand, there seems to be a lot of sloppiness that pokes in here or there--they're probably books that would've benefited from Klavan spending another year revising. But the characters are quite well-drawn--the two protagonists were just an inspired match. And the personality-driven suspense is pretty great itself.

"Shotgun Alley" takes on an oddly philosophical bent, at one time cross cutting between a deconstructionist motorcycle gang leader and a grad school discussion about feminism. It doesn't always work, but when it does, it REALLY works.

Oh, and both are about the crudest novels I've ever been able to stomach and enjoy, so caveat lector.

Loren Eaton said...

I suspect you and I both read a certain blog that recently completed a round up of many of Klavan's novels. I'm quite interested in The Uncanny, despite the lack of "supernatural" element (which I typically prefer). Dynamite Road and Shotgun Alley sound from their descriptions like some of Dennis Lehane's earlier work, of which Prayers For Rain is the best.

Regarding the sloppy style, I just finished Klavan's The Rain, which won an Edgar Award, and it's quite good. It's a hardboiled mystery and as such has lean, muscular prose -- quite different from Don't Say A Word. It's worth a read if you like your mysteries stylized and gritty.