Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Day One-Hundred Eighty-Five: The Book of Lies

You know what I don't think I've done yet? A book review. So here's a book review.

I just finished reading Brad Meltzer's The Book of Lies. Meltzer wrote my favorite graphic novel of all time, DC's Identity Crisis, so hopes were relatively high for this mystery-thriller-pseudo-Biblical story. Here's your basic premise: Your protagonist is a guy named Cal, a former federal agent who now works for a homeless shelter-type place. One night while on the job, he runs across his dad (who accidentally murdered Cal's mom when Cal was eight and has been in jail/out of Cal's life ever since). Cal's dad has a bullet wound. Turns out his dad was making some sort of mysterious delivery that supposedly included a map to an item known as the Book of Lies, which nobody knew for certain what it was, but an organization called The Leadership had been searching for it for centuries. According to legend/myth/whatever, the Book of Lies was something that God gave to Cain after Cain murdered Abel, and the Leadership viewed it as their God-given right to possess whatever secrets the Book contained. Cal wants to know what his father's up to, so he looks for the shipment, a federal agent gets killed, a Leadership assassin with a hell hound of sorts gets involved, and Cal and his dad find an original copy of the first Superman comic book ever published. So as they're being chased across the country by the Leadership gun, the dead agent's partner, and some eerie person known over the phone as The Prophet, Cal's figuring out what the murder of Cain has to do with the creation of Superman, which has something to do with a rare Russian gun that shot his father.

Not much farther-fetched than that da Vinci stuff, anyway.

I don't want to say any more story-wise, because to do so may give away one of the many plot twists that make this a fun read. It took me a while to get into it, but once I did it was pretty quickly and pleasantly paced. However, there were two problems I had with Book of Lies as a whole. First, Meltzer set up a lot of stuff to look pretty significant, and some of it was really neat, but it didn't always hit a payoff. For example, the hell hound I mentioned above: this creature was pretty prominently featured for the first, oh, third of the book. The narrative gave this beast an almost mythic quality that went well with the slightly-supernatural eerie tone the story was taking. After the first altercation with the dog, just kinda went to being a normal dog. And its relationship to its master was relegated to "man obsessed with his dog." Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with man obsessed with his dog. That guy can be a fun character. But it felt like a letdown after such a significant set-up. There were a few other instances like this, and this is probably just a matter of taste, but I generally believe that, when you build something up, you need to give it a payoff worthy of the intrigue you've built in to it. (While we're all celebrating the release of Half-Blood Prince, this principle is part of what made the Harry Potter series so great)

The other issue I had with the book was that it was one of those stories you really can't think too hard about after the fact. Things move along quickly enough while reading it that you'll allow certain things to slide, but as I reflected upon the book later (and I admit, this is a nasty habit I have when it comes to books), some of it stopped making any sense. Why would such-and-such do this? How did this-or-that happen in the first place? Why couldn't they just so-and-so? And, the dreaded Wait...did they ever bother to explain blah-blah-blah? These were all variations of questions I had thinking back upon BoL. I realize saying something is improbable in a story linking Superman to Able and Cain may be a bit hypocritical, but I view far-fetched stories like this the same way I view fantasy, sci-fi, and comic books: you set up the microcosm, the little world in which you'll be playing. You make up the rules, you tell us what is and is not possible and what is and is not likely. Anything that happens in the world you set up is fair long as it still makes sense in the world you've set up. Meltzer's world features a sinister body of men that predated (and later included) the Nazis who have spent the last seventy or so years looking for a comic book so they can find something God gave to Cain. That's your microcosm, I love it, let's go with it. But an improbably story is not an excuse for completely nonsensical things to happen. (Even Alice's adventures in Wonderland made sense within the realm of the Wonderland)

Now this makes it sound like I disliked the book, which is far from the truth. I just feel that my comments like "pleasantly paced" and "a fun read" are pretty self-explanatory, whereas more ambiguous things like "occasionally missed payoff" and "occasional lapses in logic in the Biblical Superman murder mystery" needed some clarifying. Overall, it's a fun read and a good story. There are some real page-turner moments, and the ending, while not terribly original, was fairly inspiring and heartwarming. (To me, anyway. I fully acknowledge all of my biases. I won't go into more detail because that would spoil it, but I understand that one man's "inspiring" may very well be another man's "hokey." And that's as it should be) If Meltzer had wanted, he may have been able to create a more overall-satisfying tale, or at least a slightly tidier one, but the story he crafted is good, and the book is, on the whole, a good deal of fun. A summer blockbuster of novels, if you will.