Plague by Lawrence Clayton Miller
Schtop, schtop… this biblically themed international thriller isn’t ready yet. It needs at least one more editor.*
Depending on how quickly you read this book it’s either flawed but interesting or hurl-it-across-the-room every second page frustrating.
Most people don’t read every single word in a sentence, one at a time, in order. We tend to scan the whole line and we skim over many common words like ‘the’ without consciously reading them at all. The faster you read the more of the page you’re reading in one go. Therefore the faster you read the more the layout of what you’re reading matters.
I’m no speed reader but I am pretty fast. My record for a whole novel is about two hours and if I don’t consciously slow myself down then I tend to consume even pretty big books in a single sitting. So when I read a book like this that changes location, focal character and point in time with just a paragraph break I tend to get confused.
I’m sure the author is going for a seamless transition from scene to scene. But if you read quickly it’s more like getting whiplash of the imagination. One minute I’m in Dominica and the next I’m in London. In one sequence we go from a woman contemplating a phone call when she gets to America, to in America making the actual phone call, to the reaction to that phone call from the point of view of the guy she’s phoning. This all happens with less break in the text than there is between the paragraphs of this post.
Perhaps the author intends the narrative to feel like it’s whipping around the world at breakneck speed but it doesn’t compensate for the other problem. The massive front loading of backstory. Maybe I’m over sensitive to this because as an aspiring writer I’ve read a lot of how to manuals that tell me that the opening chapter is no place to explore the tragic past of your central character. You’re supposed to show the reader why a character matters before you try to tell them anything about that character’s backstory.
The third problem is one of research and if you’re American this probably won’t affect you at all so you can stop reading. There is a character in this book who works for the SIS. That’s Britain’s intelligence agency the Secret Intelligence Service. The author gets almost everything wrong about the SIS. Probably because he assumes that the SIS runs like US intelligence agencies.
Just to give you a few examples: The people who work for the SIS are officers not agents. The SIS doesn’t get sent to foreign countries to investigate weird deaths unless there’s some suggestion that it’s linked to a direct threat to Britain or British intelligence interests. That’s true regardless of whether the country in question is part of the Commonwealth or not. SIS officers don’t go flashing their credentials to everyone on the ground. They don’t introduce themselves to all and sundry as SIS officers. Remember that the first S stands for SECRET.
This is not a bad book. But it’s not as good as it could have been were the promising narrative not drowning in poor formatting, premature backstory and flawed research.
*Imagine you read that in a terrible fake Dutch accent.