Warner, 2001, 462 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-61003-8
If I had a subtitle to this review, it would be something like “A Twist Too Far”: James Patterson is a professional thriller writer, but with 1st to Die, it looks as if he got caught in the who-blinks-first game of twisty chicken, where authors always try to top themselves in shocking the readers out of their socks with unpredictable endings in which everything we know is wrong. With credibility-shattering circumstances.
Here’s a hint, thriller authors: It ain’t the twists, but what leads to them. There’s a reason why procedural thrillers are good fun to read: Everything is on the table and if the writing is good enough, there isn’t any need to twist the story. Because the most twists you try to put in a novel, the more you run the risk of wringing the story dry. And with that type of stuff comes the annoyed reactions of readers about a novel which doesn’t make sense.
First in a series titled “The Women’s Murder Club”, 1st to Die (Annoying title, grrr) is the story of a serial killer going after newlywed couples. As the overbearing prologue suggests, the officer on the case is about to drop straight through an abyss of madness trying to catch the killer. The rest is fairly standard thriller territory, what with a clever killer, an overwhelmed protagonist, twists and turns and alibis and fake-outs. We get first-person chapters told by the protagonist and third-person chapters from the misleading perspective of the killer.
But as the first novel in a series, it is also an origin story. Here, Inspector Linsday Boxer spends a bit of time making friends from different professions (journalist, lawyer and doctor; a handy bunch of people to keep around) and bringing them around a table to think about her newest case. Neat idea, which will probably pay off in a later novel, but not here: 1st to Die is first a foremost a novel about Lindsay Boxer, and she’s the one who does most of the work. The Club is really just a sideshow, a set-up for the series’ main premise.
While I’ve seen a number of films based on Patterson’s books, it improbably seems as if this is my first novel of his. I suppose that at this point, my first question is to ask whether Patterson always thinks he can get away with such obvious plot cheats. At one point, for instance, a prisoner escapes thanks to… an earthquake, which somehow snaps open his prison transport van. Hmmm. Elsewhere in the novel, the first big twist is fine (it’s well-announced, and somewhat reasonnable), but the last-chapter twist (which is predictable, but more in a “no, don’t do that Patterson, nooo” sense) is just one big piece of tripe that actually diminishes the novel’s impact. It only makes it obvious that Patterson isn’t content with the usual amount of misdirection –he actively cheats and lies in order to maintain a thin presence of plausibility when the final twist comes around.
To that, you can add a number of other flaws. The super-heroic abilities of the villain, for instance: I’m tired of antagonists who seem to know more than even the author. Patterson also crams too much stuff in too little space: The gratuitous death of one character is so predictable in an “no permanent attachment for the protagonist” fashion that it barely raises any emotional stake. There is also a medical subplot which doesn’t really lead anywhere nor do anything, but acts as, I guess, further set-up for the rest of the series.
And yet, and yet I must say that I’m not that disappointed, overall, by the book. The ending is often far less important than anyone may think, and so perhaps the only thing worth remembering about 1st to Die is the energetic writing. The story advances at a nice pace, and even if the upcoming twists are obvious, it’s a pleasant read. There are a number of interesting details that show that Patterson at least knows how to do research, plus a thriller-writer character that almost makes me wonder if the novel’s just an elaborate game of “screw you, reader”. That’s got to be worth something, even if only for audacity.
It all amounts to a fast novel that ends just as you realize that it’s not all that good. Fun to read, but unpleasant to think about, 1st to Die is, I hope, some kind of an anomaly in Patterson’s career. Of course, I’m not in too much of a hurry to find out right now: There may be no 2nd Chance.