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.

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