The Gemini Man, Richard Steinberg

Bantam, 1998, 374 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-58016-7

I picked up this book by mistake.

I had been reading movie-rumor sites, and a particular project had caught my interest. Harrison Ford (or Mel Gibson, or Sean Connery) was supposed to be attached to star in THE GEMINI MAN, a thriller about a government operative being tracked down by… a younger clone of himself. Very interesting, especially given that a digital recreation of the lead actor (built from footage taken from movies released twenty years ago) would be used to re-create the younger version of the character.

So I found myself at a used-book sale with a dirt-cheap copy of Richard Steinberg’s THE GEMINI MAN in my hands. A quick glance at the back cover blurb seemed to match my recollection of the film project: “He was trained to be our deadliest weapon. Now he’s our worst nightmare.” Sounded about right.

Certainly, the first chapter of The Gemini Man is one of the best thriller opening I’ve read in a long, long time. Deep in Siberia, an American officer is sent to a concentration camp in order to bring back another American operative. The Russians put up some resistance, muttering something about freeing the devil and how, even under maximal security, the prisoner has already killed half a dozen guards. The terrified Russians add that his last escape attempt resulted in the death of a civilian family. The writing is brisk, clear and terrifying as we meet special operative Brian Newman, as if Hannibal Lecter had ended up as an US secret agent. A lot of small ominous details add up to promise a gripping novel.

The rest of the book never matches this promise. In short order, our female protagonist is introduced; a psychologist tasked with interviewing Newman to decide if he’s fit to re-integrate civilian life. That is, if he can stop killing small birds and stray cats. Hmmm… what do you think?

It gradually becomes apparent that this isn’t the story for which Ford, Gibson or Connery would have agreed to star. It takes a bit longer to realize that this is a completely ludicrous novel.

It’s obvious from the start, however, that super-agent Brian Newman, he of murderous dispositions and terrifying abilities, is positioned as an anti-hero of Lecteresque appeal. He seems consciously engineered by author Steinberg as the perfect dangerous man, charming yet ruthlessly amoral, a genius-level sociopath with no remorse. Needless to say, we’ve seen this before, from Patricia Highsmith’s Mr. Ripley to Harris’ Lector, passing by the real-life Ted Bundy. As a reader, I tend to be annoyed by this quasi-glorification of criminal behavior. It seems all the most manipulative (“Oooh, a sexily dangerous man! My primal urges are taking over!”) when considering the statistically documented dimness of most criminals.

It gets worse, because as the novel unfolds, Steinberg conjures up some neurological/psychological claptrap to “prove” that Brian Newsman isn’t simply a nut, a wacko or a government-trained mad dog, but rather a newly-evolved species of Humankind, Homo Sapiens Saevus or Homo Crudelis. Brain of a new man. Brian Newman. Ooh, subtle stuff.

I’m used to seeing thrillers come up with whoopers, but that pretty much took the cake. Once the other characters start agreeing gravely and coming out of the woodwork as further examples of this new species, it’s only a small step to suppose that Steinberg belongs to the NRA and that he thinks that the Nazi concept of eugenics was a pretty good idea. Or maybe not, but at the very least he needs to work some more on suspending his readers’ disbelief. (In any case, he’s not learning very quickly; paging through his second novel in bookstores, it quickly became obvious that this was a novel where the protagonist discovers that -egawd!- the American government secretly knows about aliens! How so very original!)

Of course, once super-badass-anti-hero is established as a new species of man, it doesn’t take a genius to see where the novel is going. It goes there without too many surprises. Yawn.

Too bad, because The Gemini Man had the kernel, and the opening chapter, of a great thriller. Start of a series? Blah.

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