When a book review is weeks (maybe months?) late, logic says: blame the book reviewer. The book reviewer (that would be me), of course, is ready to blame the book.
Brad Meltzer’s latest page-turner, Book of Lies seems to have leaden pages. Though its chapters are dutifully short (an average of perhaps four pages) and each chapter ends with a micro-cliff-hanger, there is a dutiful laboriousness to this book. Conceived as a pseudo-sequel to Meltzer’s bestseller, The Book of Fate, and modeled shamelessly on The Da Vinci Code in many respects, Lies goes through its paces like a middle-aged man at the gym—dedicated to staying lean but lumbering nevertheless.
Without question, Meltzer had a keen idea for a book, born out of the author’s deep interest in comic books. (Meltzer has penned a mess of comics himself, not to mention co-creating the Jack and Bobby TV series and authoring six novels.) Here it is. Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, not long after Siegel’s father was killed in a robbery. Was the character of Superman psychologically inspired by this death? Was it murder? Why and by whom was Mr. Siegel killed? Might early incarnations of Superman contain a coded answer to this question? The actual story of Siegel and his creation is rich with intrigue, lawsuits (Meltzer went to Columbia Law School), and rivalries.
But would that book be a page-turner?
Instead, Meltzer makes an attempt to tie Siegel’s death to a centuries-old quest for a biblical “Book of Lies”, a book that may have been the very weapon used to commit mankind’s first murder: Cain’s slaying of his brother Abel. And thus commences the layering-on of thriller hokum: secret societies founded centuries ago, ties to the Nazis, a single-minded maniac tattooed with “The Mark of Cain”, the single-minded maniac’s vicious dog, and a mysterious figure known as “The Prophet” who seems to be manipulating the single-minded maniac. It is, let’s be straight-up here, a transparent attempt to Da Vinci Code-ize the story.
The hero of Lies is Cal Harper, a former federal customs officer who has started working to take care of the homeless in Florida. Long-estranged from his father, Cal seems to stumble onto a labyrinthine plot and his dad at the same time. It’s way too breathlessly complicated to recount here, but the gist is this: Dad Harper has somehow been recruited to import to the US a coffin containing a Chinese corpse and a pristine copy of the very first Superman comic, and the Single-Minded Maniac tries to kill Cal & Dad to get it, but he only manages to kill another Customs agent. Dad has a hot younger girlfriend, and Cal/Dad/Hot GF take off for Cleveland, trailed now both by the SMM and by another federal agent who thinks Cal killed the Customs agent. Will Cal lead the SMM (and by extension “The Prophet”) to the long-lost “Book of Lies” that killed Abel and somehow, some way, found its way into the hands of the creator of Superman?
This kind of dizzying business goes on for dozens of chapters. All the characters are continually talking on cell phones to friends/assistants/bosses who can look up information; GPS tracking devices are used and destroyed; tiny moments of suspense at the end of every chapter are trumped up and then dismissed; main characters are stabbed and shot and seem miraculously to recover with little medical attention—and more than once per character. And the reader is teased and led astray regarding the identity of “The Prophet”.
Most importantly, the real motivations of the characters are almost continuously hidden. Meltzer’s technique is to hide information from the reader at every turn. “What is going on?” you wonder. “It’s urgent, and there’s gunfire, but where are these characters going and why are they going there?” Eventually you figure it out (Da Vinci!), but suddenly there is a new mystery presented. It’s hard to know if you want to turn the page so Meltzer can fill you in or if you just don’t care much any more.
Meltzer uses some mighty strange narrative techniques along the way. Some chapters are written in the standard third-person/past tense form. However, our hero Hal narrates “his” chapters in first-person and in the present tense. This is not hip literary styling, of course (Da Vinci), so why add to the confusion? In one chapter, Meltzer may think he’s being cute with this, as he narrates a car chase in the third person even though we’re supposed to think that Cal is driving the car. But, the reader thinks, either this is wrong or Meltzer has spoiled his own surprise.
There is plenty of confusion that is not intentional. Meltzer himself mixes up the names of the girlfriend and the Fed who is chasing Cal at a critical point on page 182, for example. And Meltzer’s metaphors are chronically and painfully mixed. A character explains some of the action by saying that it “conveniently uncorks the pressure cooker but still leaves all the pawns on the board.” And what’s the deal with this passage: “The early bird gets the worm, but the smart bird is the one who knows the value of a good distraction. Still as I grab yet another glance in the rearview, only the fool bird would think we were home free.” What is a “fool bird”? Huh?
At other times Meltzer seems not to be reading his own prose from sentence to sentence or even clause to clause. For example, he describes a car as “moving quickly—not too quickly, no reason to stand out—as it dashed…” But then the car “blew past empty bus stops” and it “screeches to a halt”. On another single page, a character is described as being “like a big truck” and as pouncing “like a mountain cat”. Meltzer, dude, you have to make up your mind.
The real problem with The Book of Lies, however, is not the prose. Page-turners are not expected to be written with élan. But the plot should feel compelling and inevitable. Here, the plot seems contrived and madly improbable, designed mainly to make sure that Cal and his dad always have one more destination to fly to as they are pursued. First they chase the coffin, then they follow the comic book to Jerry Seigel’s boyhood home, then they dash to a museum, then back to the house, then to a historical society, then to a prison. Each step is breathless, but there is precious little sense that Cal cares about what he is chasing.
This “Book of Lies” that the Maniac/Nazis/Prophet/Ancient Society wants so much is powerful…somehow? It is both a weapon and a “book”, and it is so powerful that it inspired a millennium-long murderous hunt. Sure, eventually Meltzer explains all this, kind of, and he even links it up to the idea of Superman, but this is done so late in the book as to render the bulk of the action stale, even if Meltzer himself comes off as clever.
Ultimately, The Book of Lies is toothless. Even if you find it to be a thrilling read (and I did not), I suspect you will feel that the ending is an anticlimax. The bad guys seem fated to fail, and our hero is too good to be true. The characters never swear but instead say things like “craparoo.”
Cal, who emerges as a kid with “dad problems” but who never seems to be decently described as a physical entity or as an adult, somehow winds up with both female characters, platonically. Though he kisses his dad’s girlfriend at one point (like I said—a kid with dad problems), this is a book with no sex and only a comic book kind of violence. Not that every book requires sex and violence, but this page-turner winds up mostly as a potboiler—a color-by-numbers Da Vinci Code for the Superman set.
It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a yawn.