Bantam, 1998, 429 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-58000-0
I haven’t been kind to Dale Brown’s previous few novels (no less an authority than on-line store mostlyfiction.com linked to my last review as “Christian Sauve’s (brutal) review of Fatal Terrain”), but don’t mistake my lack of enthusiasm as anything but disappointment: if Brown’s first novels remain cornerstones of the technothriller genre (especially Day of the Cheetah and Silver Tower), what’s stopping him from writing another scorcher?
While The Tin Man is ultimately not much of a success, it clearly shows that there’s hope for Brown’s career. It moves away from Brown’s usual aerospace plots, tackles other issues than “there are no problems that a well-equipped B-52 won’t solve” and even spends more time closer to the characters than has been the case over his last five books.
But there’s one big problem with The Tin Man, and his name is Patrick McLanahan. McLanahan, of course, is Brown’s favourite protagonist since Flight of the Old Dog. Brown seemingly can’t let go of his imaginary universe, even when the discrepancies between it and our world are getting too big to ignore. Smarter writers would see the constraints of series fiction, start from scratch, build other novels around other characters and ultimately let things run their course. But whereas Brown has tried singletons before (Hammerheads and Chains of Command), he has never been able to resist the latter impulse to fold them back into the McLanahan series at the earliest opportunity, regardless of internal coherency. (Let’s not even talk about the Taylor/Clinton/Martindale presidencies mash) With The Tin Man, Brown had another ideal opportunity to start afresh. But… no.
McLanahan started life as an air force navigator, evolving -over time- into an all-purpose action hero. This trajectory finds its ultimate expression in The Tin Man as McLanahan, seeking to avenge his rookie policeman brother, asks a few favours from a genius-grade friend and gets a high-tech armour fit to take on a small army of terrorist. (“He’s an air force officer! He’s a nerdy engineer! Together –THEY FIGHT CRIME!” would go the TV spots.)
The “Tin Man” armour is certainly a neat gadget, despite blatantly ignoring every law of physics you can think about. Its wearer can absorb gunshots, manipulate heavy weaponry and kick really high. Armour-clad McLanahan goes on a rampage and soon finds himself battling terrorists and policemen, finding out that vigilante justice isn’t as much fun as DEATH WISH promised. Brown has never let a real-world detail stop him from writing fabulous action scenes, and so The Tin Man at least delivers a few good thrills along the way.
The Tin Man is better-structured than any of Brown’s novels since before Storming Heaven and integrates a number of good technical details about Sacramento’s police milieu. Brown hasn’t lasted this long in the techno-thriller genre without learning how to deliver a copious amount of detail, and so the technical aspects of the novel are relatively pleasant to read: Should Brown decide to abandon the military genre, he’s clearly got a future in police procedural thrillers.
The character details are also better than in Brown’s last few novels. The relationship between McLanahan and his younger brother is compelling, even if it’s in a plotting-101 fashion. It’s also good to see uber-nerd Jon Masters get a featured role in this novel: He’s easily my favourite character from the Brown oeuvre, and his budding romantic relationship is heartening despite lacking in subtlety.
But even my attachment to Jon Masters can’t displace the feeling that if The Tin Man has most of the right elements in the right place, it loses points for some silly on-the-nose plotting, plausibility-stretching sequences and (cue familiar refrain) sticking McLanahan where he doesn’t belong. It would have been much better as a standalone singleton, especially given how this is the first time (and maybe even the last time) McLanahan has even mentioned his younger brother. Oh well; at least it’s better than Fatal Terrain. Battle Born, which apparently brings McLanahan back in a cockpit, is up next.
[June 2008: An anonymous but disappointed Dale Brown fan sends along:
dale browns tin man doesn’t seem so outlandish 10 years later maybe he did something called research those 10 years ago into future weapons systems. every toy in his books is at least under study and or development and feasible sometime down the road they break no laws of physics so maybe you guys need to do some research into a subject called physics
Reprinted without comments regarding Dale Brown fans.]