Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Incredible Double by Owen Hill

It's not often that you stop by the new mystery section of your library and find a book that's about a bi-sexual protagonist. So, though there were other books I was interested in, this is the one that came home with me. I probably could have made a better choice.

Clay Blackburn is a man of unusual occupations. He's a book hunter by his tax return, a dying industry in this age of Amazon and E-Bay. That's why he moonlights as an unlicensed private detective, the first of many unlikely things that really kept this one from being a book I'd recommend to others, despite some really cool ideas.

As we meet Clay, money is a bit tight and despite his leftist leanings (he's friends with a man who has quite a few resources on the radical fringe but never gets caught, which I also find unlikely) he takes on a case that involves assisting a Joe Walton-like figure who owns a drugstore chain. His employer practices are questionable, but that's no reason he should meet with foul play, and anyway, the money is good.

When Clay digs deeper, he finds a beautiful woman and a vast conspiracy that combine to give this book its name. She makes him do things most people can't, but will it cost him everything to be with her? With his employer turning against him and his only allies a set of conspiracy theorists, semi-homeless men, and radicals, can Clay survive?

The answer is probably not, but since this book is part of a series, Hill has to put the reader through increasingly unbelievable hoops (and a few total cliches about a femme fatale) to keep Clay alive. I'd have been okay with this had the plot been tighter, but characters roll in and out of the story as needed, ideas are forgotten, and the whole process is just so muddled that even after reading the ending twice, I didn't find a way to make logical sense of the whole thing.

Maybe I wasn't supposed to, and should have just relaxed and enjoyed the ride. I certainly am no stranger to extraordinary tales, and can take a fish story as well as anyone. The problem I had here is that the plotting was so loose, it almost felt secondary to the whole operation. When you are dealing in a genre that bleeds cliches like a character who has been shot with a tommy gun, plot is essential. I'm afraid this book's plot felt like something that needed workshopped a few more times before publication.

There are some good points, which is why I was maddened by the writing itself. Clay's sexuality is taken as a given, as are the other queer characters. A character going through a sex change is treated as normal, and even an object of sexual desire here and there. (Unfortunately, this is marred by some racially tinged remarks that have no place in a book set in the present day.) I of course was geeked at the references to old books and hunting for books, even if I've given up the practice myself. I also enjoyed several of the one-liners and the attempt to have a noir feel to the proceedings.

On the other hand, what worked for a 50s sleuth won't fly today, and I cannot believe the ease with which these characters do illegal things. I feel like Hill should have done more legal research, and not been as blind to modern realities as Clay appears to be. It's okay for your character not to know, but the author, as God-of-the-story, should know much more. I also found a lot of the chapter breaks to be arbitrary and artificially short. This didn't help the flow of the writing any, and led to me feeling like I had to work to stay with things. That's not where you want a detective story to go. The more the reader moves, the less they have time to think.

If you are going to constantly reference some of the greatest detective writers (Clay lives at the Chandler, for God's sake), then you'd better be ready to be compared. Sadly, I don't think this book meets its mark. The Incredible Double really should have been double-checked before it met final publication. There's just too many holes in the plotting and too much stilted writing to be what I was hoping for. Despite some good ideas and respectful treatment of alternative sexualities, I just can't recommend this one to others.

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