Book Review: Why Thrillers Sometimes Drive Me Nuts

Available from Rainy Day Books and other fine booksellers.

I’m still looting and pillaging in my late aunt’s library, and getting quite an education about the contemporary thriller genre. 
This week’s book, The Sixth Man, is another from the mind and word processer of David Baldacci.  Baldacci is a gifted writer, and he’s perfected his craft to a high level—but I’m becoming more and more clear on the fact that the thriller genre itself apparently has a tendency to punch a lot of my buttons.
The Sixth Man is especially a case in point.
Emotions: now there’s a concept
I’ve already written about the problem I have with emotionless characters—especially characters who remain emotionless, even when they are in situations where they shouldn’t or couldn’t be emotionless. 
Our two main protagonists are characters about whom Baldacci has written both before and since, Sean King and Michelle Maxwell. 
In this book they are in a semi-romantic relationship, as well as being private investigator-partners. In the course of the book they are placed in difficult and dangerous situations where they worry about each other, struggle to survive, and encounter other situations in which any normal person’s emotions would be engaged.
I sometimes wanted to yell at author David Baldacci.

However, we don’t generally encounter pumping adrenalin, pounding hearts, sinking stomachs, or other visceral reactions in this book—not even when they’d be highly appropriate, natural reactions.  I began to wonder for a while if all the characters in this story are sociopaths.  Striving to remain dispassionate and rational despite dramatic events is not the question, here—not feeling anything at all is. 

Neither King nor Maxwell has been characterized as a Zen master or a champion emotion-compartmentalizer, and yet time after time I wanted to yell, “How does she FEEL about that?” or “What does that make him FEEL?”

Wanting to yell at the author is definitely the kind of thing that bumps me right out of the story and distracts from my willing suspension of disbelief, so it’s a problem.
Unfortunately, it’s not the only problem I had with this book. 
The basis for the story is a big WTF
Yeah, that’s a biggie.  For me the concept of The Analyst—while perhaps not totally preposterous (?)—seems really problematical as an ongoing business plan, much less the foundation upon which national security should depend. 
If only one person ever found actually is able (because of his unusual mental capabilities) to do this job, then what’s the long-term outlook?  What’s a nation to do, when The Analyst dies or burns out (or is framed for serial murder)?  On what enduring safeguard do you base national security then?
It has a f—king prologue
I will readily admit I have a built-in prejudice against prologues (if it’s important to the story, why can’t it be “seeded in” during the setup?  In many cases, that would be the better option). I was annoyed when I found this book had one.
Prologues were invented for a reason, though, and I could maybe understand upon reflection why Baldacci used one in this case.  On the other hand, 15 chapters and 100 pages is a long time to wait until an important character, whom readers haven’t seen since the prologue, shows up again.  I had to go back to the f—king prologue to remind myself who the heck this dude was.
The opening is a nameless torture scene
I really despise this kind of opening—you know the one: you’ve read them, yourself.
There’s some nameless victim in a dark room, writhing in pain and begging “make it stop!” but Remorseless Powers In Charge just watch him squirm.  It takes three pages to get to the first character’s name, in this book (as it happens, he’s the guy who doesn’t show up again for another 100 pages).
I’ve read both beginning writers and actual, award-winning and/or bestselling authors use this device, and it never works for me, no matter what level of skills are brought to the task.
It’s supposed to be a dramatic opening that piques the reader’s interest, I guess.  But it invariably makes me want to scream and throw the book across the room.  I soldiered on in this case, but it was a very near thing.
Earlier books are summarized in an “As you know” scene
Other writers may call it different things; I call it an “as you know” scene.  It’s a scene in which two characters (in this case King and Maxwell) have a conversation, in which they tell each other things they already know, for the “benefit” of readers who don’t already know them. 
No one actually has conversations like this in real life—we already know!  Baldacci should already know better, too!   
Okay, so are there any redeeming features?
Sure there are.  If you can tolerate some of the aspects that gave me the occasional urge to yell, and you’re willing to accept the general levels of alienation and paranoia that seem to be kind of the accepted attitude for most contemporary thrillers I’ve read, then other aspects of The Sixth Man deliver pretty well. 
The perplexing murders and the underlying pattern that only gradually comes into focus are well handled. It was an interesting mystery, well paced, and with the various subplots woven in skillfully. Despite the low emotional inputs, the ending is fast-paced and interesting. And just deserts are nicely served to most of the deserving.
If this is your cup of tea, then by all means, go for it!

IMAGE CREDITS: Many thanks to Rainy Day Books for the cover image.  The photo of the author is courtesy of the “EBookee” website. 

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jansgephardt

Kansas City-based Jan S. Gephardt is a writer, artist, and teacher. She makes nationally-recognized paper sculpture and writes sf mystery novels about a sapient police dog.

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