Nothing Lasts Forever, Sidney Sheldon

Warner, 1994, 384 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-35473-2

There’s something to be said for trash, as long as it keeps me amused and out of trouble.

I know, on some intellectual level, that Sidney Sheldon is a best-selling writer. That his name is (was?) mentioned alongside Tom Clancy, Danielle Steele or Stephen King as this model of a wildly successful multi-millionaire author. But in a classic illustration of how large the fiction publishing universe has grown, it’s entirely possible for even a voracious genre reader such as myself to go practically ten years without reading a single novel of his, nor have much of an idea of what he usually writes. The last book of his that I’ve read, The Doomsday Conspiracy, was by a significant margin the single worst attempt at Science Fiction by a non-genre writer until Robin Cook’s Invasion.

I’m not a big reader of medical thrillers, but I believe that Nothing Lasts Forever does for them what The Doomsday Conspiracy did for SF: Barge into the genre with no affection and no refinement to develop a trite story featuring bad characters and entirely expected developments. But whereas The Doomsday Conspiracy‘s naive lack of sophistication seriously annoyed me, Nothing Lasts Forever ends up being… almost charming. I’m sure that my devotion to SF has something to do with my reaction (“How dare you make fun of my favourite genre?!”), but after this book, I suspect that there’s another element at play.

Let’s briefly review the basics of the plot: Three new doctors, all women (and yes, discrimination still plays an important part in this 1990 novel), learning the ropes at one of San Francisco’s biggest hospitals. But, as the first page baldly states, “one of them almost gets an entire hospital closed down, the second one kills a patient for a million dollars and the third one is murdered.” And there we go. In a curiously sophisticated nod to storytelling structure, the first chapter of the book is a fast-forward murder trial that, of course, presents a cynical version of events that will be completely overturned by the latter “true” flashback narrative.

If you’re used to daytime soap operas, Nothing Lasts Forever (a title that even sounds like a soap opera) will be instantly familiar. The shallow characterization. The casual evil inflicted by the tale’s villains. The twists and turns of fate (best described as “honking coincidences”). The way the story is pared down to its essentials in a series of short scenes. At the very least, no one wastes his time here, as the story races from beginning to end.

And that’s just as well, because the plot jumps from one unlikely situation to another. Gainful murder is committed because that’s the first thing that comes to the mind of the villain. An incompetent doctor naturally turns to Kama Sutra-enhanced seduction as a palliative for her lack of knowledge. (Worse; her daily couplings always works in ensuring the cooperation of her superiors and colleagues. Surely she can’t be that good, right?) Reading pages of this novel at random is an exercise in preposterous plotting.

But guess what? It’s so unsubtle, so unapologetic that it’s hard to resist. To quote the novel about the doctor with a specialization in Kama Sutra career-advancement, “There was a helplessness about her that they were unable to resist. They were all under the impression that it was they who were seducing her, and they felt guilty about taking advantage of her innocence.” [P.115] Bang on: This is such a fun novel, in its own skanky way, that’s it’s difficult to be harsh; it would be like spanking a mewling kitten.

If this review sound awfully condescending, consider this hypothetical scenario: What if an unbelievably crafty writer learned after years of trying that general audiences don’t like to be challenged? What if he took secret delight in producing trash and actually agreed with his most severe reviews while lighting cigars with hundred-dollar bills? What if he consciously dumbed down his stories so they’d appeal to everyone, including self-styled hipsters reading for ironic value? Hmmm… Twisted? Unbelievable? Even more so than this particular novel?

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