Last to Die by James Grippando

[25 September 2003]

By Nikki Tranter

By the Book

A beautiful woman hires a known hit man to shoot her. In her will, she has left $46 million to her six worst enemies. The will states that the last remaining will receive the fortune. It’s up to top Miami criminal investigator Jack Swytek to find out why.

Swytek is the creation of lawyer-turned-author, James Grippando. The perfect combination of cocky superhero and romantic leading man, Swytek is a guy who’s seen it all and lived to tell the tale. With his latest case, the tale is particularly twisted, but Swytek, in true style, saunters his way through maze of deception (and a lot of bodies) with comparative ease. His know-it-all position and save-the-day swagger are far too familiar, though, for his investigations to contain any real suspense. Just how many of these literary supercops do we need before the crime-fiction soufflé is entirely spoiled?

Crafted from Grippando’s own experiences on the job, Swytek is a delicious character. He’s class all the way. But nothing about him—he’s witty, smart, rugged and sexy—allows him to stand out from the PI creations of authors James Patterson, Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly, John Connolly, Robert Crais, Lawrence Block, George Pelecanos, Ridley Pearson, Walter Mosely, James Lee Burke or Jeffrey Deaver (to name but a few)?

Sleuth fiction is a big business these days, evidenced by the amount of books authors like Patterson squeeze out each year, as well as by the amount of new detective novels popping up all over the place (Mary-Anne Tirone Smith’s Poppy Rice and Alafair Burke’s Samantha Kincaid are two of the most recent) that either have or will have sequels. Readers can’t get enough, it seems, of the smooth-talkin’ sleuth who knows the score way ahead of time and with the uncanny ability to remain relatively free of injury and fit the pieces all together in record time with amazing clarity.

Swytek is all this and more in Last to Die, and while Grippando does extremely well at building tension, it’s difficult to maintain when the reader can all but picture Bruce Willis sneering his way through every confounding obstacle in this race between a stalker, a child murdered, a slave owner, a crime reporter, several nasty lawyer-types and a particularly charming recovering porn addict.

Just like his literary counterparts, Swytek in a complicated individual who uses humour to mask whatever personal and professional difficulties he may be enduring. And, just like them (not forgetting the chicks - Kathy Reichs’ Tempe Brennan, Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone), he’s encountered tragedy on the job, he’s been left a little weary by the seedy world he inhabits, he’s a bit of an emotional fuck-up with nary a successful relationship in sight (because if these detective’s have partners, they’d better watch out . . . ), he’s experienced more than one near miss in his crime solving, is disillusioned with humanity which sees him smirking off sarcastically at every opportunity, he’s smarter than everyone they run into, and, most importantly, he always wins.

With the exception of Daniel Kline’s Elvis Presley—the author, at the very least, attempting to sway from the norm by featuring The King as amateur crime-solver—contemporary fiction’s investigative elite don’t differ all that much from one to the next. Regardless of how well their creators can tell a story, they are almost never able to give their readers any kind of genuine scare that the beloved hero may not actually make it out alive. Sure, they’ve all been through a few scrapes, but until one of them is actually shot in the chest—or better still—doesn’t manage to bring the most heinous killer to justice, you’ve got to wonder what really is the point of wading through their oh-so-predictable stories?

Take forensic psychologist Kathy Reichs’ latest book—as far as mystery and suspense go, this one is about as gripping as a broken flip-flop. The problem here is that, with the character already firmly established, the author has decided that throwing any old bullshit together can pass for “writing” when the sales are guaranteed. In the chart-topping Bare Bones (Scriber, released in July), Dr Tempe Brennan—beautiful, intelligent, sarcastic, etc, etc—is about to go on vacation when the bones of a baby are found charred in an old stove. Stirred by the discovery, she decides to stay on and find some answers. The situation heats up when even more bones are discovered—some bear, some human. Reichs has Brennan bitch and moan her way through the book as she seemingly trips over the missing pieces to her puzzle—the most ridiculous of which being those bear bones found by her own dog at a picnic she was attending. The plot is idiotic (oddly resembling Michael Connelly’s latest Bosch book, City of Bones, released in paperback by Warner earlier this year), the sarcastic jabs thrown out by Dr Brennan remove completely her remaining shred of likeability, and the red-herrings are all set up in the most hellishly obvious ways—Brennan’s daughter doesn’t phone for a few days, and uh-oh she’s seeing that mysterious young man who’s house the bear bones were found at, could he possibly be the killer?

In the end, it doesn’t matter. Reichs herself doesn’t even seem to care, what with her forensic explanations coming off more as blurb from textbooks than based on her own knowledge (and, surely explanations about rigor mortis and the wonders of using bones to determine age and sex were outlined in any and all of her other books?). And why should she? The killer and his horrid plot are outlined by Brennan in the last few pages of the book negating all we’ve read up until that point. That this author, constantly on the bestseller lists and lauded by crime-novel readers everywhere, could be so sloppy demonstrates the kind of damage the flood of characters like Tempe Brennan is doing to, well, characters like Tempe Brennan.

Or maybe it just proves my point that when “authors” like Reichs have said all they can about the wonders of their jobs, someone needs to tell them authorin’ might best be left to the professionals. Wouldn’t want Stephen King or Joyce Carol Oates analysing blood samples, now would we?

Sure, not all the abovementioned authors have hit the wall Reichs has, but that doesn’t change the fact that crime novels and their ever-popular heroes are getting harder and harder to distinguish. Grippando’s book is a cut above simply by being a great story. But if he doesn’t do something to yank Jack Swytek free of the mould he’s currently in—in good way, not in a Look! The good guy you liked in all my other books is really the bad guy! James Patterson Violets are Blue way—he risks becoming just as much a cliché as the rest of them. Or, more likely, lost amid the flurry.

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