by Patrick Robinson
May 2005, 464 pages, $25.95
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It’s hardly surprising that both these authors sport the marketing bling of a New York Times Bestselling Author tag. Devil’s Corner and Hunter Killer are each classics (and not necessarily in a good way) in their respective genres of Crime-Lit For Chicks and Right Wing War Games For Boys—two of the absolute junk staples of beach and airport literature.
Scottoline’s particular chick lit mystery twist is that her leading characters are all lawyers. This time out, she’s moved on from her usual cast of Philadelphia-based Rosato and Associates regulars—Mary DiNunzio, Judy Carrier, Ann Murphy, and Bennie Rosato herself. Perhaps she’d finally realized that despite her obvious love affair with the character DiNunzio and her extended Italian-American family, she had mined that particular seam bare. After all, as a wise man once said: To base one plot around an identical twin sister may be regarded as a misfortune; to do it twice can only be described as insulting and creatively bankrupt. The usual Lisa Kudrow exemption applies.
So Scottoline has benched (only temporarily, I’m sure) the characters that have seen her through 11 New York Times bestsellers, and in an attempt to breathe fresh life into her aged writing, she has introduced a bold new protagonist, Philadelphia-based lawyer Vicki Alegretti and her extended Italian-American family. Scottoline’s also belatedly spotted the popularity of Janet Evanovich’s Jersey-based Stephanie Plum and attempted to season her usual mix with some of Evanovich’s now waning spice and wit. Her efforts are not entirely successful, and Devil’s Corner has to be considered a further fall from grace for a writer whose earliest works ranked highly among her peers.
For his part, Patrick Robinson is doing very-nicely-thank-you with his slightly future techno take on the Clancy gambit, including right wing politics, silent-but-deadly submarines, elite Special Forces and a xenophobia that quite takes the breath away. All of Tom is here in Robinson’s tale of how the French government, Al-Quaeda and Hamas combine to engineer a devastating coup in Saudi Arabia, and how our brave American heroes contrive to thwart ugly French ambition at the last.
Just as Scottoline clearly wants to be one of her own cute, smart, brave Italian-American lawyers, Robert Parker wants rough bottom-sex with Spenser, and Tom Clancy wants to be Jack Ryan (the less said about Patricia Cornwell the better), so Patrick Robinson is living a life of blatant wish-fulfillment, and inviting his readers to join him. Like Clancy, peer Michael DiMercurio and the inexecrable Vince Flynn, Robinson nurses an obsessive crush for the Special Forces, their unwavering honor, their dashing good looks, and their steadfast ability to take a bullet, grit their teeth, wipe out Johnny Foreigner, and still be home in time for mom’s apple pie. Unfortunately, he doesn’t appear to hold the French in quite such high regard. Speaking through his own personal Jack Ryan, Admiral Arnold Morgan, Robinson states his position quite clearly:
“Never mind half the world falling into a blackout, never mind hospitals and schools closing down because of power shortages. Never mind stock market crashes, highways coming to a halt, the world’s airlines grounded through lack of fuel… They - the great imperious and haughty French - la grande civilisation—must go their own way, steering their own course to prosperity. Gallic pricks… Can you imagine the United States doing something like that? Or Great Britain? Or the Aussies? For pure personal gain, to let the rest of the world go to hell for two years? Wiping the world’s most plentiful and best-priced oil right off the map? Bankrupting little nations? Damn near closing down Japan? Hurting just about everyone? And not caring? Jesus Christ. That takes a damn special nation.”
Paging Alanis Morissette?
In his introductory note to Hunter Killer, Robinson attempts to claim he has “no wish to portray the French nation as cunning and unscrupulous”, but he can tell that to the Special Forces. Just as in previous works, Robinson has continually villanized the Chinese (and occasionally Iran, Iraq, and North Korea) with an eye on popular opinion, so he has now decided it’s time to turn his guns on those “lying frog-eating bastards”.
Almost charmingly, it is clear that even Robinson’s evil Arab terrorists have a higher moral standard than his French government. Indeed, for Robinson, the only good Frenchman is a single noble, honorable elite Special Forces type who was actually born in Morocco.
The differences in style here are obvious, and perhaps telling. Scottoline tempts you with gutsy little lawyer cuties, their entertaining Italian-American sub-plot families, and their generic inability to make their personal lives function. Fashion and hairstyles are as important in her world as verdicts and careers. Personal relationships are defined by conflicts and questions, and it’s as important to Scottoline to resolve these issues as it is to find out whodunwhat. Chick lit mysteries are smaller, more personal stories than your average right wing war story for boys. Indeed almost universally they are confined to a single geographic location. God knows what would happen if a new purveyor of gutsy female crimestopper fiction decided to move into Scottoline’s Philly, Laura Lipmann’s Baltimore, Sue Grafton’s Santa Teresa/Barbara or Linda Barnes’ Boston. Perhaps we might see the birth of a whole new genre: the chick lit crimestopper bitch fight.
Typically, Robinson paints on a wider canvas. After all, you can’t get the full-on cruise missile penis substitute effect in the backstreets of Philly, and there’s only so much room for submarines to take out warships and 400,000 ton ULCCs (Ultra Large Crude Carriers) in the Delaware River. His characters flit from Washington DC to Damascus to Beirut to Paris to Marseilles to Riyadh and back again in the blink of an eye and the squeeze of an H&K trigger. But what we gain in scale, we lose in detail. Relationships are cast in stone. There are no emotional conflicts, no families, no light, no shade. And very little attention to hair. Because that’s the way boys like it. But there is an alternative to the chick lit mystery’s interest in fashion: an absolute obsession with military hardware. While Vicki Alegretti can recognize a nine-millimeter Glock when it’s pointed straight at her in Scottoline’s opening paragraph, Robinson takes an almost pornographic delight in the machinery of death.
For all the flaws inherent in their genres, both these authors have done good work previously. These books, however, are weak in almost every respect. Characters, plot, structure. It’s clear that the New York Times Bestseller mill grinds a writer’s talent exceedingly small. Scottoline’s Devil’s Corner is the worse read here because Robinson does more with his material, and yet Hunter Killer (possibly the most toys-for-boys name ever) is a morally despicable piece of work. While Scottoline attempts a little touchy-feely soft political awareness in her treatment of the inner cities, Robinson’s conclusion appears to be that it doesn’t matter how many people die, or how much damage is done, so long as the President of the United States gets to put the French firmly in their place and open up Alaska for drilling.