|by Jack Sommersby
Morgan Freeman's crime-busting Alex Cross character headlined the OK "Kiss the Girls" and the atrocious "Along Came a Spider" but hopefully won't be making another big-screen return based on this latest in the Cross series, which marks the steady decline of author James Patterson.
For fans of best-selling author James Patterson’s Alex Cross thriller series, the latest, Cross Fire, as usual, shoots forth like a panther on steroids; but also as usual, it has very little substance and resonance. In the early entries, Patterson was masterly at concocting tantalizing plot turns and rich characterizations, but, like Stuart Woods with his Stone Barrington series, he soon opted for generic stories and rote characters in the robotic quest to churn out an entry every year regardless of whether there was anything actually substantial in the offering. They weren’t terrible novels but not-terrible isn’t exactly the most flattering descriptive ascribed to a talented writer’s works when we, as well as the author, know he can do much, much better. For the uninitiated, Alex Cross is a well-renowned Washington, D.C. homicide detective who’s also a famous psychologist with a John Hopkins pedigree. He’s tracked more than his share of serial killers and apprehended most of them, with the at-large ones remaining elusive not for plausibility’s sake but so they can make reappearances in later entries so Patterson doesn’t have to exert himself in creating new psychopaths, and this kind of thing wore thin long ago. On the domestic front, he’s still overworked, much to the chagrin of his feisty grandmother Nana, and tries to find quality time with his children, who have learned over the years to be tolerant of daddy’s need to fight evil in the world. And this time his arch-nemesis Kyle Craig is back. Craig was a former FBI agent who used to be Cross’ close confident on many cases, but he was revealed to be an insanely-clever killer whose sicko psychosis went full-blown; he was captured by Cross and sentenced to a life term in a maximum-security federal prison but eventually escaped and has been maliciously toying with Cross ever since in the manner of a cat with a mouse. As the story opens, Craig takes out a deep-undercover FBI agent who hasn’t been seen in the last three years; he gets plastic surgery to look like the guy, mimics his voice, and comes into FBI headquarters to get reinstated to full duty. The timing couldn’t be better in that a series of high-profile shootings of tainted political figures have taken the city by storm, and soon Craig is working alongside Cross on the case without Cross knowing who he is. Added to which, Cross is also investigating some serial murders with complex math equations carved into the victims’ foreheads. Oh, and he’s also proposed to his soul mate and is planning to get married quite soon.
Obviously, Patterson has set a lot of storylines in motion, and with his penchant for two-and-a-half-page chapters, the book certainly zooms by. But being that the contextual value is so direly lacking, the swift pace only accentuates its vapidity, which has been the case with this once-delectable series for the last several years. It used to be that Patterson offered up an array of spectacular, super-smart villains -- the master-of-disguise child-kidnapper Gary Soneji in Along Came a Spider, the wicked dice-rolling, prostitute-killing British diplomat Geoffrey Shafer in Pop Goes the Weasel, the kidnapper-of-beautiful-women Casanova in Kiss the Girls -- but here he’s not only trotting out an old-hat one in Craig, who’s long outstayed his welcome, but two new ones who couldn’t be any duller. The crux of the Cross series was Patterson’s uncanny ability at expertly getting the reader into the fascinating mindsets of the villains -- you came to know them with a lucid understanding that was compelling and repelling at the same time -- but the ones in Cross Fire are purely second-rate in that their motivations are shoddy and their psychological realms are practically left unexplored. They’re just plot devices, plain and simple, with the author having exerted hardly any effort in giving them any semblances of complexity. When the Numbers killer finally explains himself, it’s right out of pseudo-Psychology 101; and when the Shooter is soon revealed to be just about money, you’re visibly deflated. Of course, if there were some terrific twists and turns pertaining to them, this could be fairly tolerated, but there’s not an inkling of one anywhere to be found. And being that they’re not given any decent dialogue, they’re flat-out casualties of Patterson’s now-limited imagination. Then there’s Cross, who used to be a wonderful lead character whose high acumen and dandy deductive skills were real treats to behold -- when he went after a clever foe, the intellectual process in tracking them and anticipating their next move is what crime fiction is all about. But he’s now largely a reactive character, responding to crime scenes and having practically all the clues fall right into his lap through mostly coincidental happenstances, and that’s boring. His scenes with his children and Nana, the giver of gold-plated advice, just go through the motions, and his cop partner Sampson, who used to cut a really fine figure, is all but ignored. Sensing this is largely a soggy bag of empty tricks, Patterson even throws in Cross’ ex-lover and the wife of his youngest child, and nothing in the least bit of interest comes of it.
For a while, though, the book holds some promise. The selection of the shooter’s targets is politically motivated, as is made quite clear, so with this we expect the underlying motivation behind the unknown person hiring the shooter to hold some cool context, but, like practically everything else Patterson trots out, it’s dumped and left just hanging in the air. (Patterson probably thinks he’s being admirably anti-conventional in doing this, yet taking into account how slipshod the story construction is, it only punctures rather than punctuates the proceedings.) There’s absolutely no suspense in the lead-ups to the shootings where the shooter is on top of faraway rooftops to avoid detection, so that aspect is shot; and since the victims are given no dramatic weight before their deaths, we don’t care a lick over their untimely demises. (Patterson’s exploiting thinly-veiled real-life political-malfeasance figures for cheap, easy points without bringing any girth of his own to the party.) When the interconnecting stories need to progress, Patterson throws in one wild contrivance after another out of thin air to progress things in the most mechanical of ways. (He could’ve just as easily told the story by assembling the story strands on a blackboard for all their chalky, pasty impersonality.) In the knockout new Jack Reacher novel Worth Dying For, best-selling author Lee Child had a lot of story strands and different conflicts going on, too, but he interlocked them with deftness and wit, and there was a welcome, well-earned surprise around every corner -- you could plainly see that Child put a great deal of thought into what he wrote, and the fact that it came off with such ungodly ease made you appreciate him even more as the master writer that he is. Patterson used to be of this caliber before multi-dollar signs in his bulging eyeballs started to influence the quality of text he saw fit to inflict upon his readers who grew to trust him from his bravado and aplomb; in between the yearly Cross entry, he co-writes other thrillers that couldn’t be more underwhelming and forgettable. And then to wrap things up in a way too smooth a manner, he commits the unforgivable, flagrant error of having a supposedly-intelligent mastermind foolishly expose himself to danger that even an inebriated Okie could foresee a few zip codes away was a really bad move. Again, Patterson probably thought it was daring to do an unconventional thing like having a villain’s plan thwarted with something unconventional like a can of hairspray, but the clunky way the sequence is staged, you can only roll your eyes at the odiousness of it all. Maybe next time, Patterson, if you decide to start actually writing again for a living, that is.
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originally posted: 01/05/11 05:35:49
last updated: 01/05/11 10:25:40