This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
A reminder of my earlier definition: Kindlefluff consists of Kindle content which is offered either for free or ludicrously cheaply on Amazon which I would never have tried to read were it not offered to me at a stupidly affordable price, and which I certainly don’t intend to reread after giving it an honest chance. Because I’ve invested so little in reading this stuff in the first place, it doesn’t take much to make me stop reading: last time I was put off by some occult anachronisms and New Age pandering in The Bones of Avalon and the expectation that I’d find bifurcated ding-dongs anything other than amusing in A Good and Useful Hurt. What stupid, petty reasons will I have for dissing people’s hard work this time around? Let’s see!
Tamed by Douglas R. Brown (obtained for free) is one of those books which lure you in with a great concept and whacks you over the head with a horrible opening chapter. In principle, the book sounds as though it could be silly fun; the premise is that a sinister corporation known as the WereHouse has discovered that werewolves exist and have successfully captured the last remaining specimens from the wild, and have used them to breed a race of
atomic supermen domesticated woofles.
This is one of those story concepts where once you hear it, you can kind of guess how the plot is going to progress from there, not least because you’ve probably watched, read or played through numerous iterations of the same story before. In this case, it’s kind of like Underworld: Rise of the Lycans without the vampires or being set in History, or possibly Dollhouse with less personality transmogrification and more woofles. At the same time, the premise is cool enough that I honestly wouldn’t mind so long as Brown handled it with skill and finesse.
So, the opening chapter set back in 1982 has Bernard Henderson, the ludicrously young CEO of the WereHouse, accompanying a posse of merecenaries in a raid on an indigenous village in Costa Rica – because, you see, the natives are woofs and this is the raid where they all get enslaved. There are numerous issues with this chapter; the prose is rather lifeless and lacks the sort of flair which really makes an action sequence compelling, but that’s really the least of Brown’s problems.
The biggest problem is the most obvious problem: the fact that Brown depicts this indigenous village as the home of a race of savage, feral monsters. Now, obviously these are savage, feral monsters who we are meant to sympathise with, even as we boo and hiss at the big mean corporation that enslaves them, but it’s still the case that in the space of a single chapter Brown manages to very thoroughly paint these people as not merely being exotic Noble Savages, but also barely human outsiders along with it. There were a million ways Brown could have cooked up a way for the WereHouse to obtain exclusive control of the wuff-wuffs – just have lycanthropy be something they invented in a lab, for instance – but Brown chooses one of the most distasteful options he could have gone for. I know his heart is in the right place in terms of the whole sequence setting its face against colonialism, but it manages to do so in a way which comes across, at least in my reading, as belittling and patronising the colonised parties.
On top of that, there’s the problem of Bernard and his presence on the mission. Apparently, mercenaries are absolutely fine with the idea of the guy who signs their cheques riding along with them on their missions on some sort of macho whim, and Bernard is stupid enough to think he would be anything other than an enormous liability if he tags along. This makes him look less like a malevolent corporate facilitator and more like a total stumblefuck, which hardly works when it comes to establishing the WereHouse as a competent and threatening antagonist.
On top of that, the action sequence he blunders into simply makes no sense; it involves him doing things like throwing himself to the ground and pulling the trigger on his assault rifle until bullets stop coming out, and then lying still hoping nobody works out where he is (uh, the gunfire would be a clue, buddy). Then he tries shooting a woof with the gun whose magazine he just deliberately emptied and is surprised when it just goes “click”. Now, possibly this is Bernard just being a shit combatant who isn’t thinking straight, or possibly this is Brown writing a completely illogical action sequence which he didn’t think through. The problem is that based on the rest of the chapter I really can’t tell which it is, which is kind of unacceptable. If I want to read an action-packed story about woofs I need to be confident that the author has the first clue how to handle woofle-based action and I didn’t get that impression here. So I gave up really quickly and moved on to something else.
A King of Infinite Space
The debut novel by Tyler Dilts, A King of Infinite Space was originally issued through small press World Parade Books before being picked up by AmazonEncore. Presumably, the fact that Amazon themselves publish it through their “check out these new authors” imprint has something to do with it being picked for the Kindle Daily Deal, which is how I obtained it (for the princely sum of 99p.).
Though I did in the end read it all the way through, I’m going to count it as Kindlefluff anyway because I was ultimately glad I didn’t pay more than £1 for the book. The main reason for this was simple: it honestly didn’t offer me anything I couldn’t have got from any random episode of any number of US cop shows. It’s a straight down the line police procedural with a cast of cliches and set in Long Beach, which due to its proximity to Los Angeles and the occasional diversion into South Central places it awfully close to the regular stomping grounds of The Shield, TJ Hooker, Dragnet, and more or less any other cop show set in LA, a locale which over the years hasn’t exactly lacked for coverage in police procedurals.
Of course, it should be noted that Dilts lives in Long Beach and there’s nothing wrong with writing about the place you live in – after all, it’s the place you know best in the world, and I’d rather read a real-seeming depiction of Long Beach from a local than a fakey one by someone who had never been there. But whilst Dilts does a good job of giving the reader a bit of a sense of what Long Beach is like, he doesn’t quite do so engagingly enough to make the setting an asset to the story, nor does he manage to distinguish his California from the California I see on the news and cop shows to the extent that I think he’s shown me anything new. Because Dilts fails to make the setting sufficiently gripping for me to forgive the fact that LA and environs are already kind of overexposed in the crime genre, I couldn’t help but regularly think “wow, this is like that one episode of Generic Cop Show” whilst reading..
If the setting is familiar, the cast and the actual action will give you deja vu regularly. Dilts actually has a scene where there happens to be a junior cop at the murder scene, and the jaded, experienced protagonist talks to him and the rookie says it’s his first murder scene and then the hero points out that the rookie’s just trod in some evidence. This is an exchange which, whilst doubtless rooted in reality, has been used in so many different police procedural shows that to actually write it out yet again is just shameless filler (no, the evidence trod in doesn’t turn out to have any significance either). The cast of characters also seem to have been cribbed from television – particularly the cops, who are naturally the characters we spend the most time with. Lead detective with sharp dialogue, a tormented past, and a drinking habit which is simultaneously portrayed as being his main off-duty hobby and yet never impacts his ability to do his job? Check. Immediate superior who regularly uses the “tell me something unlikely has happened which means that we can wrap the case up quickly” line? Check. More distant superiors who are more interested in politics than solving a murder? Check. Female partner who is regularly described as being tough but actually requires rescuing at least once? Check. Computer wiz who can do hacking stuff which the author, like the protagonists, shows little sign of actually understanding (which the book acknowledges requires a warrant but the cops are happy for him to go ahead with before getting the warrant anyway because apparently they don’t give a damn about their jobs or tainting of evidence)? Check. The most original character on the team is “guy who has pet theory about the crime and gets stroppy when people don’t listen to him”, and between those two quotation marks are all the details I can remember about the guy concerned.
Plus the team is filled out with a few nobodies who you never really get much of a handle on at all. That’s really where the problem lies. Cliche isn’t a mortal sin provided that you are able to use it to achieve some effect – either the one you were going for, or some alternative which you didn’t plan but which is enjoyable for your readers nonetheless. What’s wrong with the cast here is that they consist of half-formed cliches; those characters where we can discern a feature or two in the mostly shapeless lumps of their personalities, the features in question are cliched. Other characters don’t even make up that much of an impression.
It isn’t just the characters who lack substance – the plot seems half-baked too. So, our hard-drinking lead detective Danny Beckett and his mildly exotic partner Jen Tanaka (exotic in that she has a Japanese surname and she teaches a martial arts class in her spare time – smooth move, Dilto) are called in to investigate the murder of Elizabeth Williams, an English teacher hacked down in her classroom after school. The only hard evidence left behind are the stab wounds indicating that a ghurka-style kukri was used, and the fact that Elizabeth’s left hand is missing. The title is, of course, a quote from Hamlet – “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space – were it not that I have bad dreams.” – which is relevant both because Williams was teaching Shakespeare and because Beckett himself suffers a series of bad dreams relating to the death of his wife over the course of the book, which only go away once he solves the case.
The Hamlet angle is actually the bit where the book works best – just as Shakespeare’s most Danish play revolves around a toxic parental relationship, so too do parental relationships often pop up over the course of the book. There’s Elizabeth’s own troubled past with her father, who eventually proves to be one of the suspects, and the family situation of another suspect, Daryl Wexler, who admits that after his wife died his relationship with his son has been a little difficult. There’s also Rudy, who attends Jen’s martial arts classes and who Danny and Jen both end up mentoring to a certain extent. I’m not convinced this particular theme really went anywhere – Dilts seems to show us all these parental relationships but doesn’t really seem to have any point they are trying to make – but it’s an interesting way to work a non-standard theme into a detective story.
It’s in the more standard detective story motifs that Dilts falls down. He throws in just enough red herrings to keep the waters muddy (though not quite enough to obfuscate who the real killer us), but a lot of these strands just don’t go anywhere. Of course, I’m not saying detective fiction should eschew red herrings, or that real police work doesn’t involve a lot of leads that don’t ultimately lead to anything substantive. When I say these plot threads don’t go anywhere, I mean in a narrative sense – they don’t really add anything to the story, and so there seems to be little rhyme or reason as to why we are devoting space in the narrative to these threads as opposed to any of the other strands.
Take, for instance, the first arrest the cops make in connection with the killing. Their target is Yevgeny Tropov, a hitman with ties to Russian organised crime. The arrest sees Tropov physically menace Jen so she can be saved by Danny, which I guess is a significant character development point (if a tiresomely familiar one), and of course when they check Tropov’s alibi it’s solid so he is free to go. Fair enough, I suppose (though, yawn, female cop ends up at the mercy of bad guy so big strong dudecop can save the day). What is really bizarre is the aftermath of all this, where we are – not just once, but repeatedly – told that Tropov is deeply embroiled in some sort of snitching setup and the cops from the organised crime division tell the murder team to lay off and stop fucking up their sting operation. It is also clearly and unambiguously stated that by severely hurting one of the mob’s own – Danny really goes to town on Tropov – Danny has made himself a target for reprisal.
The other shoe never drops. No reprisal is forthcoming; nor are there any significant plot developments concerning the organised crime division investigation. Whilst I do see the point in waiting until a sequel to throw in the mob reprisal – the book’s blurb clearly suggests that Dilts intends to write a whole series about Danny – I don’t get why the organised crime division investigation is a factor here. With an alibi the murder team can’t find fault with, Tropov already has everything he needs to get the cops to let him go; with a good alibi backed up by actual cops, Tropov is firmly ruled out as a suspect for the purposes of those reading along at home, because for Tropov to have actually committed the murder whilst simultaneously keeping the organised crime division appraised of his whereabouts and being under surveillance from them beggars belief. Had Dilts held back the part about the organised crime division until the sequels, then Tropov could have viably been a red herring until the end of this book – and he’s clearly intended to be since Danny and Jen are shown to consider him a potential lead until faced with a fairly clear indication that one of the other suspects has some explaining to do.
Likewise, there’s a bit where Danny is trying to create an emotional rapport with Wexler by sharing details about his wife’s death (Danny’s aforementioned tormented backstory) in the hope that Wexler, who has been similarly bereaved, will open up to him. It is clear from Danny’s first-person description of this process and his colleagues reactions to him doing it that this is meant to represent Danny sailing into dangerous waters. In fact, along with other things like Danny’s drinking issues and the way he seems to be on the verge of killing Tropov needlessly and so on the book regularly flirts with the idea that Danny is getting too personal with the case. The most overt way this is established is with Danny figuring out that Elizabeth was an old friend of his dead wife’s, and did in fact come to their wedding. The book makes a big deal out of this point and, again, doesn’t really deliver on it; the connection doesn’t really change anything about the way the investigation pans out at all, and nor does Danny’s attempt to become a confidante of Wexler. Sure, Danny does realise in the late phase of the book that when Wexler confesses to the murders (there are multiple by this point) he’s lying to protect someone, but he shouldn’t have needed a deep emotional connection to the guy to figure that one out. He and the rest of the cops would have sussed things out just fine were it not for a bit of outrageously selective incompetence on their part.
Fair warning: from this point on I am going to get spoilery. This might be a bigger deal than usual because as a very disposable murder story A King of Infinite Space is more vulnerable to spoilers than your average book. Quite simply, what pleasure I did get from it I got from sussing out who the killer was, which meant the second half of the book was a bit of a bore because I’d already correctly guessed by that point. So, here’s a big bolded paragraph to add some spoiler space and a quick conclusion to the review for those of you jumping ship at this point: this book is like popcorn made of cardboard. If the maker had made a few different choices, like using corn instead of cardboard, I’d have happily munched through it unhampered by any illusions that I was digesting a literary marvel. As it was it’s just a bland, tedious chore to get through and doesn’t offer even the mild payoff basic microwave popcorn (which I guess would be a cop TV show for the purpose of this metaphor) offers. OK, is that enough of a gap? Let’s say it is and move on.
Ok, so the killer is Wexler’s son, Daryl Junior. I guessed it very early on, unless you are singularly unversed in how this sort of story is constructed you will probably guess it too. The reason I guessed wasn’t solely because of the various circumstantial reasons to consider him a suspect – the fact that he’s reaching college age and so is more than capable of doing the killings by himself, the mysterious sealed juvenile criminal record (which could conceal all manner of nastiness), the mild references to relations between him and his father being strained after the death of his mother, the bit where Jen shows him some martial arts moves which proves that he is actually kind of strong on his own right, the fact that all the murder victims had a connection to Wexler (and therefore would likely also be known to Junior), the enormous collection of forensics and criminology textbooks in his room, and so on. No, the telltale sign which made me realise he was the killer before the book was half done was the way that all policework ceased within a five foot radius of him. Faced with all of the circumstantial evidence I have outlined, it seems to me mildly incredible that the cops simply never bother to even do some cursory investigation of him. I don’t recall them even seriously looking into where he was when the murder(s) happened, if only to eliminate him as a suspect. They simply never question him except with an eye to turning up incriminating evidence about his dad.
Now, to be fair I can perfectly accept the idea that a single person might overlook the son as a potential suspect. But when you have a whole team of people, each of whom is coming at the problem from different directions, brainstorming away to see where they might find a suspect, you’d think at least someone might wonder whether the son oughtn’t be in consideration. It’s not as though he’s too young to have pulled the crime off, and it’s not as though there aren’t a host of reasons why he might do it (say, for instance, he gets mad about these women dumping his Dad because he really wanted a new Mum in his life – that isn’t the reason, just a theory a detective might have jumped to given the information in front of them). Given that this is a police team which is willing to give credence to much more tenuous links and much more unlikely suspects the blind spot around Junior is just far, far too convenient and far too obvious. This is more or less fatal to the book; on the first reading, it’s likely you’ll guess it anyway, and on subsequent readings the team’s abject failure to treat Junior like any other person they encounter in the investigation is so blatant as to ruin the whole package.