This was my book club’s book for November. We’re meeting tonight – our 50th(!) meeting – to discuss. This is the kind of book I think the other members of my club will really like, while I will be forced to give a “minority opinion.”
***Spoiler Alert!!***A brief summary of the plot: A plebe at the U.S. Naval Academy plunges to his death from a tall building in the opening pages. Suicide? Murder? Accident? We don’t know, and we won’t know even at the end. We assume murder. The curious thing is that the plebe was wearing the underwear of a female “firstie” (“academy speak” for senior) Julie Markham, who is the daughter of another main character, Everett (“Ev”) Markham, a teacher at the Academy. Ev, a widower, retains the services of a thirty-something attorney, who also happens to be a bombshell (surprise!) who happens to be attracted to him (surprise again!). Investigating the case are Jim Hall, from the school’s security, and two NCIS agents, one of whom bites the dust early so his bombshell (surprise!) partner can work with and hook up with Hall.
Julie Markham denies any involvement with the dead plebe, and admits only to working with him some during the normal course of events at the academy. The administration of the school (the titular “dark side” as they are referred to by the midshipmen) wants the investigation to go quickly and with the desired conclusion of “accident” rather than the less palatable alternatives. While the investigation is going on, we also get glimpses into the thoughts and emails of the ‘presumed killer’, a sociopathic senior star swimmer nicknamed the Shark (I pictured a young Greg Norman on steroids… Not really). For kicks, The Shark sneaks around in the vast tunnel network found beneath the academy (this network is loosely based on fact, but greatly exaggerated for the purposes of the novel), using it for clandestine trips into town, where he hangs out with some young girls in the “Goth” crowd using them to lure victims whom he would attack while wearing a vampire get up(!)
Hall and Special Agent Branner (the tough as nails bombshell NCIS officer) learn about The Shark from Hall’s familiarity with the tunnels and The Shark’s graffiti, and from Julie’s ex-boyfriend who reveals that she once had a fling with Dyle (The Shark’s real name – I’m tired of typing “The Shark”). The last hundred pages go really fast as Dyle clearly becomes known as “somehow responsible” for the plebe’s death. Meanwhile, the administration – at the Insistence of the secretary of the navy, apparently – decides to close the case, with a judgment of suicide. Hall & Branner continue to investigate on their own and in a climax scene clash with Dyle in the tunnels, which end up flooding with water, apparently drowning Dyle.
Of course he shows up later, popping out of the water like a dolphin, to terrorize Markham some more. He is finally killed, however, and Julie graduates with the rest of her class. THEN, at the very end of the book, we watch as she sneaks down to one of Dyle’s lairs in the tunnels to retrieve and destroy her own “goth gear”, shockingly indicating she was much more involved with Dyle than we’d been led to believe for four hundred pages. The end.
Now, I enjoyed reading it, and it was a page turner, but I found it kind of weak in many areas, especially the awkwardly cliched “twist” of an ending. We have the “Big Sigh of Relief Because It’s Safe Now” when the villain is presumably killed in the flooded tunnels, after which all the hard-boiled investigators suddenly lose their doggedness and incredibly accept that he is dead. Even a dull reader like me knew he would be back. Then, even worse, when he does come back and is about to kill Ev Markham, we also are treated to the obligatory “Well, Now I’ll Explain Everything To You Since You’ll be Dead And It Won’t Matter” scene (this happens to James Bond a lot too) which I found annoying.
I DID like the interludes early on where the reader is treated to glimpse of the killer via entire sections of italicized text, revealing his thoughts and motives (at least partially). I did NOT like all the sections of the book where Hall & Dyle (and others) were playing hide and seek in the tunnels. I found it hard to picture this “landscape” to the point that all these sections seemed the same to me. I really found these scenes tedious.
I also did not particularly like the early characterization of Ev Markham, just turned fifty, as kind of a ‘grumpy old man’ caricature. Perhaps this was done, however, to additionally emphasize how his relationship with Liz DeWinter (the thirty something attorney) breathes new life into him. Much of their relationship I found less than credible, though. I couldn’t believe that she taped her conversation with Julie, then played the tape back for him (doesn’t that violate some “lawyer code” or something?) Fortunately I have two attorneys in my book club. Maybe they will explain this to me. It also seemed too “convenient” to me that this guy Markham just ends up with this successful, stylish, sexy, attorney thrust in his lap by the author. Although, as a middle aged guy myself, I have to admit this sort of thing “happens to me all the time”…NOT.
What else did I want to gripe about? Oh yeah, the chapters were VERY long, providing few natural breaking points for the reader. I’m not sure why the book was done this way, but I’ve rarely seen a book with chapters this long. I also got annoyed at the use (overuse?) of academy jargon, often without explanation. Sometimes, the jargon was explained via context later, but in the case of one term that I remember (“hundredth day”) it’s referred to for pages and pages without explanation until finally a character admits he doesn’t know what it island we are finally clued in. What’s up with that?
OK, so overall a negative review, which is somewhat rare for me. I don’t regret reading it though. As part of the “creed” of my book club we are bound to read books outside out normal comfort zone, and legal thrillers/mysteries are out of mine. I expect a backlash from my club for this harsh review, but maybe it will generate some lively discussion.