Exclusive, Sandra Brown

Warner, 1996, 469 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-60423-2

I’m usually a very demanding reader. I expect intricate plotting, well-defined characters, strong realism, exact technical details and, generally, a novel that doesn’t assume that I’m an idiot.

But then again, I like to think of myself as a reckless book critic who likes to take chances and isn’t afraid to look like a moron.

In short, I liked Sandra Brown’s Exclusive even though on many level it’s an awful novel.

For starters, it doesn’t even attempt to be realistic. The First Lady of the United States invites a low-level TV journalist and suggests that her newborn child was murdered. Cut to the president scheming how to shut up the TV journalist. Cut to the journalist checking out an ex-presidential aide now retired in the wild. Insert gratuitous sex scene. Cut to president demanding that the ex-aide be disposed of. Insert revelation that the child might have been the aide’s because the president had a vasectomy without telling his wife. Add presidential murders, infanticide, double-crosses, torrid sex, false fakeouts, conspiracies, FBI agents, strong-and-deadly protagonists, houses blowing up and you’ve got something akin to a weird hybrid between men’s adventure novels, X-Files episodes and Harlequin romances.

Exclusive never attempts to cultivate an aura of realism. The cackling evil president has no basis in reality (not even as a cross between Clinton and Nixon), the secret agents seem to come straight from Men in Black and the intricate interrelationship are stolen straight from daytime soaps. Sloppiness or cheekiness, the effect is the same; a novel that’s enjoyable because it’s so honestly over-the-top.

The writing style reflect this willingness to plow forward without attention to verisimilitude: This is a one-day no-bookmarks novel designed to make you turn the pages as quickly as possible. The writing is simple, direct and to the point.

Which doesn’t preclude some annoying quirks. The last act of the novel is precipitated by a preposterous link with a minor background detail that borders on sheer coincidence if not outright authorial intervention. It’s not the only, nor the least, of the outrageous plot development. Brown is also fond of fakeouts, which will quickly cause experience readers to fall back on their most paranoid ain’t-dead-until-you-kick-the-body attitudes. Finally, for some reason, it’s really hard to warm up to Exclusive‘s protagonist, who comes across as a none-too-competent whiner more than a true heroine. But then again, Brown’s sarcastic dialogues would make a shrew out of Mother Theresa.

And yet, for all its excessiveness, multiple twists and eye-rolling revelations, Exclusive is a heck of a lot of fun. Granted, it’s hard to make an outright comedy with infanticide, presidential murders and other cheery material, but Exclusive is best seen as a tongue-in-cheek quasi-parody of those oh-so-serious political thrillers available elsewhere on the shelves. Somehow, I don’t think that Brown was quite aiming at this territory when she set out to write this book, but given that this is her sixteenth novel, she’s professional enough to make it a lot of fun anyway.

Surprisingly enough, while occasional readers might like Exclusive on its most basic level, it’s the jaded readers who might the biggest kicks out of Brown’s novel, with its lively tendency to do exactly what you wouldn’t expect. Considering it a comedy might be unfair and extreme, but then again so is Exclusive.

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