Tag Archives: Richard Steinberg

Nobody’s Safe, Richard Steinberg

Bantam, 1999, 469 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-58188-0

I remember standing at the local Chapters bookstore, looking over the New Fiction paperback rack. “For over fifty years, a mysterious organization has been guarding a secret that will change everything you have believed about our government” said the cover of Richard Steinberg’s Nobody’s Safe. I took a look at the back cover, read the blurb and frowned. Aliens, I said to myself. That’s the secret. I don’t normally glance at last pages, but this time the impulsion was too strong: I peeked. And confirmed that, indeed, aliens were the twist of the novel. Needless to say, it went back on the shelf.

But everything comes around, and years later I met Nobody’s Safe again, this time at a dirt-cheap used book store. Things had changed between that initial contact and this one, though. I admit that I read some authors because they’re bad in interesting ways. Patrick Robinson is one of those, and Richard Steinberg certainly earned his place in that category after The Gemini Man (a rather silly story glorifying a serial killer) and The 4-Phase Man (one of the dullest thrillers I’ve ever read). If Nobody’s Safe measured up to his two other books, I might have been due for a treat.

As it turns out, Nobody’s Safe is bad, but bad in different ways from his two other novels. Taken together, they could form an unholy trilogy of What Not To Do when writing thrillers.

The novel starts a lot like Absolute Power (the David Baldacci novel or the film, take your pick) in that a master burglar at work witnesses a brutal murder. But the similarities end there, as Nobody’s Safe‘s Gregory Picaro has a bit more on his plate than a simple presidential homicide: the murdered man had some very intriguing things in his possession, and powerful forces are ready to do anything to retrieve them.

Take a guess as to the nature of those documents and artifacts retrieved by Picaro. Or better yet, don’t: Among other stupid ideas, Steinberg bluntly reveals documents stamped “MJ-12” on page 72, but remains curiously coy as to the significance and meaning of those documents. Two problems, here: First, the fact that “MJ-12”, or “Majestic-12”, is ridiculously well-known in pop culture as being associated with UFOs, aliens and government cover-ups. Given the success of The X-Files, the prevalence of the Internet and UFO-literature, you’d have to work overtime to find a thriller reader who doesn’t already know about the MJ-12/Aliens link. Why does Steinberg spend so much time, then, pretending that there’s a big secret? Is this a sign that he’s taking his readers for idiots? As the author self-gratifyingly re-invents the big “alien” twist, more experienced readers are liable to frown and bristle at the dripping condescension.

The second problem with MJ-12 is both more and less serious. It’s quite well-known, by now, that the MJ-12 documents are pure fantasy. No, not just “UFO freaks are nuts” fantasy, but well-disproved forgeries fantasy. (Search around for “MJ-12” and “Phillip Klass” for details) This is a minor issue because it’s been a while since I have expected total realism from my thrillers. To point out that this is a bad novel because, obviously, there’s no such thing as an aliens cover-up is not just highlighting the screamingly obvious, but it’s also somewhat besides the point. What is far more damaging to Nobody’s Safe, however, is that in cheerfully reusing the MJ-12 mythology, Steinberg demonstrates an appealing laziness. Not only does he stoop to recycling stuff, but he’s content to recycle debunked stuff too!

The rest of the novel isn’t much better, and in fact gets worse and worse. Whole segments of the action are telescoped between chapters, and trivial inanities end up taking forever. (Hint: It’s easy not to care about gypsies if you’re not as fascinated by them as Steinberg is. Really easy, as a matter of fact.) Dozens of pages are wasted on dull scenes even as the action should accelerate. The characters are colourless, and so is the action as contact with the aliens is made. Nobody’s Safe is worse than insulting and condescending like The Gemini Man; it’s dull, and as such clearly points the way to The 4-Phase Man. (I simply can’t resist suggesting the blurb “Nobody’s safe… from that piece-of-crap novel”)

There are, to be fair, a few interesting details about the art and science of burglary, and at least one intriguing scene where a judge discusses the status of truly illegal aliens. But that’s not nearly enough. The rest of Nobody’s Safe speaks for itself: It’s a bad thriller regardless of how one looks at it and it solidifies Steinberg’s credentials as someone who should be doing other things. Indeed, he doesn’t seem to have published a fourth novel… and while it would be catty enough to suggest that it should remain that way, another part of me can’t help but to mourn this drying fountain of bad books. It means that I’ll have to look forward to the next Patrick Robinson opus.

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.