Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Doll by Taylor Stevens

Title: The Doll
Author: Taylor Stevens
Publisher: Crown Publishing
Rating: WARTY!

So why would a nation which overthrew the monarchy sport a publishing company called Crown Publishing? Another mystery for Vanessa Michael Munroe to crack?! This novel, published by Crown, is the third in an ongoing series of which Munroe is the main character. Note that I haven't read the previous two. The back-cover blurb compares Munroe with Lisbeth Salander of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo fame, but apart from the fact that both were abused when they were younger, they have absolutely zero in common. Let this be a warning to all who do not self-publish: there is no limit whatsoever to the stupid things your publisher will lard your novel up with, and no end to how misleading back-cover blurbs can be! Those blurbs are not there for your guidance or for your education; they're there for one purpose and for one purpose only: to trick you into buying the novel! Fortunately, since I borrowed this from the library, I was far more willing to take a risk, so it wasn't an issue for me

There is some prior history going on with this volume, but it's almost completely irrelevant to the story told here as far as I can see, so if you picked this up out of order, as I did (and there is no indication on the cover to tell a prospective reader that this is "Book x of the Blah Blah series") you won't miss anything. Plus, it's blessedly told in third person (maybe the fourth in this series will be told in the fourth person? Hmm!), so there's none of that absurd and obsessively self-important "I did..., then I did..., then I wanted to..., then I saw...." garbage to wade through.

This volume doesn't even open with the main character except in that her colleague (and romantic interest, evidently) at a private security company observes her being tranquilized and kidnapped from the parking lot as she comes in to work. He's so incompetent that he can't do anything about it! As they try to trace who took Munroe, we meet her in person in the company of her foreign and very callous kidnappers, from somewhere in central Europe. She's required by these people to transport a "package" from A to B, or her brother Logan (no, it's not The Wolverine!) will be hurt even more than he was hurt already when they kidnapped him. The package is also kidnapped. She's a young, Hollywood celebrity: Neeva Eckridge who, we're told is the daughter of a US senator, but no one seems to know this? I don't buy that something like that would never have been ferreted out by the media. Or that someone would be so stupid as to try and kidnap a celebrity of her stature for his own personal use.

I picked up this novel because I was interested in Munroe, but the chapters roughly alternate between her and her partner, Bradford, who was completely uninteresting to me. I started skipping any chapter in which he was featured, and honestly didn't feel that I missed anything! What does that say about one third of this novel?! I got everything I needed from spending my time only with Munrow and Eckridge. I found their relationship fascinating - one kidnappee effectively forced to kidnap the other and take her across Europe to Monaco! Not that this made any sense whatsoever.

I was interested because I don't recall reading a story of this nature before. It was (to me) a really good and intriguing idea; it didn't develop in the way I had thought (and hoped) it might, though, and the ending really was pathetic and inexplicable. Plus Stevens left way too many loose threads to carry over into the next volume - just like she left some from the previous volume carrying over into this one. The main loose thread was Kate Breeden, apparently a friend of Munroe's from earlier adventures, but who betrayed Munroe and got herself jailed, then betrayed her further, from inside the jail - and then escaped from jail to no doubt reappear in Volume 4. That did nothing for me save inflict a mild feeling of déjà saturé (already nauseous). I only mention this because it's important for the ending (not my nausea; the fact that Munroe did not terminate Breeden with extreme prejudice in whatever earlier volume she'd had the chance to do so).

There is very little exchange between the two kidnap victims to the point where they start their road trip, and not a whole heck of a lot afterwards, unfortunately. That's' what I'd been looking forward to, and I didn't get it! Eckridge's new "captor" is more interested in how to get out of this mess, obviously, but there is an added twist in that one of Munroe's kidnappers, a younger man, the nephew of the man who orchestrated all of this, seems to be developing some remote low-level feelings for Munroe. He and a heavy (conveniently the one against whom Munroe has a grudge) are following their victims, observing them from out of sight, tracking their every movement, and controlling those movements by means of text messages to a phone Munroe is carrying. Plus both Munroe and Eckridge have their clothing bugged as well as the cheap crappy car in which they are traveling, and as well as the phone they were issued to stay in touch with the kidnappers.

I enjoyed this cat and mouse, finding it entertaining, and I was interested in how Munroe was going to get out of it. The problem is that she didn't. She made no attempt whatsoever during the two sleepless days of the trip to communicate anything to Eckridge about her plans or her reasons for doing what she was doing. Thus when Eckridge tried to make a run for it, I had thought the two of them had planned it when they were out of earshot of their trackers, using a noisy rest room. They had not. Eckridge was going it alone, and Munroe used this attempt to procure for herself a cell phone, which she then used to send her partner Bradford some text messages communicated in Morse code (since the car was bugged and she couldn't tell him everything in plain English). Superficially, this seems ingenious, but it's really stupid given that Munroe could have simply (and in Eckridge's ignorance) turned on the phone, called Bradford's number, and then simply engaged Eckridge in a conversation explaining to her where exactly they were and what was going on - fooling the kidnappers into thinking she was educating Eckridge, when she was really cluing-in Bradford.

There was an interesting problem from the writing perspective here. On p139, Stevens writes: "Bradford lay back on the sofa, head to one side...". When I reached that point I had thought it meant his head was turned to one side, but Stevens finished the sentence: "...feet to the other..." Obviously he was laying down length-wise on the sofa, but the way Steven phrased it robbed me of that understanding to begin with. Why did she choose to say "head to one side", rather than "head to one end"? I don't know. It's just another thing which can trip-up your narrative flow, and let your reader stumble. It's very minor - the rest of Stevens's writing is quite acceptable, so I wouldn't fault her for this. It's just one thing, but something for which a writer needs to be constantly vigilant when putting words on paper. Which, of course, reminds me of a Monty Python sketch (as so most things!). As John Cleese put it, "Ah, well, I don't want you to get the impression it's just a question of the number of words! I mean, getting them in the right order is just as important." I can't add anything to that. And now let's go straight over to James Gilbert at Leicester....

Anyway, in conclusion I'm going to have to rate this warty, because there were problems and the ending was a disaster in more ways than one. One problem, for example, was that Eckridge did not even realize that Munroe was a woman until a day into their trip! Now admittedly, Munroe was inexplicably disguised as a guy for the trip, but really? They had been living in each other's laps, talking from time to time, and using the rest room together for a day, and Eckridge never figured out the obvious? Nor did Stevens communicate Eckridge's knowledge deficit to the reader in way way, shape, or form! The ending? It was not only unsatisfactory, it was downright stupid. Let me give one spoiler. In the closing chapters, and knowing that Kate Breeden - whom she let live in an earlier volume - has totally screwed her over and caused deaths in doing so, Munroe then blithely chooses to let one of her kidnappers live, when the smart thing to do, and especially to do in light of her gross error of judgment with Breeden, would be to kill him.

She fails, and with that (and other issues), so, too, does this novel. I don't want to hear how tough, and mean, and decisive, and can-do, and feisty, and Salander-like she is and then find out she has let two dangerous people live, the second one in full knowledge of what a deadly mistake she'd made by letting the first one live. Her interaction with this kidnapper guy reminded me of that Woody Allen line in what, for me, is his best movie: Annie Hall when he does battle with two spiders in Annie's bathroom, armed with nothing more than a large tennis raquet, and she's crying over her sad life when he returns. Thinking she's upset about the passing of the arachnid couple, he asks her, "What did you want me to do, capture and rehabilitate them?"

I am the first to admit that trite, happy endings are never good, and even decent happy endings are sometimes not as good as a sad ending, but for Stevens to end this one the way she did turned me right off. If it were not for the crappy way she rolled this up, with so many loose threads the pages were almost falling out of the binding, I might have been willing to give this a 'worthy' rating, but given the totality of what I had to deal with here, I'm rating it warty, and advising you that I have no plans whatsoever to read any more of this series which is sad, 'cause I could have used another really good femme fatale in my life!

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