Berkley, 2010 reprint of 2008 original, 215 pages, C$9.99 pb, ISBN 978-0-515-14763-6
Reviewing books is one of my favourite things in life, and the evidence for that is everywhere you can click from this site, which has seen something like eight book reviews per month for years. There are times, however, where even the fun hobbies can feel oppressive. You’re not seeing any sign of the problem here because I’m back-dating my reviews like crazy, but I spent most of February 2011 reading one unreviewable book after another: Lengthy tomes that left me feeling nothing; non-translated French novels with no audience for an English-language review; humour books that I enjoyed but couldn’t comment at length. As I found myself reading without reviewing, my backlog grew and I entered March without having finished by reviewing quota from January. I lost patience with lengthy books that had no obvious reviewing hooks; was exasperated by pleasant but vapid comic books that couldn’t sustain 600 words of commentary; and started wondering why I was reaching so far in my stacks of books to read when I could just go grab something new and comment-worthy. (The answer to that last question, incidentally, is “reading old stuff to make way for new stuff in the piles.”) Suddenly, spending a week and a half to finish a single 1,600-page French novel in two volumes didn’t feel like such a good idea.
At some point, in bleary existential anguish, I started remembering the wisdom of more grizzled reviewers. Which White Dwarf reviewer had made a comment about his brain shrinking to the size of a white dwarf after so many routine Science Fiction books? Who was it who said that after reviewing for pay for years, short books looked more and more attractive? Was it the same reviewer who said that after a while, they stopped grabbing the fat books if they had deadlines to meet?
In any case, I found part of my reviewing-mojo back in Derek Haas’s The Silver Bear. Picked up a year ago partially because it had been misfiled in the SF section, partly for the novelty of seeing such a thin book published as a mass-market paperback, The Silver Bear is a short thriller with a lot of attitude. It’s not that good, but it’s an entertaining read –and you can polish it off in two commutes even if you read slowly.
While The Silver Bear is a first novel, Derek Haas isn’t a first-time author: His credits as a screenwriter include familiar action films such as 2 Fast 2 Furious, Wanted and the somewhat more respectable 3:10 to Yuma. That his name is recognizable and marketable explains why such a short novel made it to bookstores: Given contemporary publishing economics, few publishers would take such chances in publishing a slim, expensive novel from an author with no track record. In fact, the last time remember such a slim book in paperback, it was Steven Bochco’s Death by Hollywood.
(Intermission note, since I’m padding this review: Reviewers shouldn’t make assumptions about publishing, fame and marketing. A lot of stuff happens when Hollywood and New York publishers intersect, and only a minority of them actually make sense. Agents can do wonders, as do promises of returns against favours. Less cynically, there’s also the possibility that, you know, good novels get published no matter who wrote them.)
But what The Silver Bear doesn’t have in length, it has in attitude. A first-person narrative detailing the formative years of an assassin in-between his preparation for a high-profile hit, it’s a novel that chooses to be snappy and efficient. The antihero’s no-nonsense narration is clipped and to the point, while the plot moves swiftly in-between the flashbacks and the details regarding the life of a professional assassin. Organized crime; the use of a contact point; forbidden romance; affectless professionalism; rivalries between competing assassins… On some level, this is very familiar stuff: the kind of building blocks many movies (including Haas’ Wanted adaptation) have used in the past. But the down-to-earth nature of the details is convincing (our assassin’s path through the Chicago underworld is gritty enough) and the very dark world Haas needs as a backdrop to his novel is credible enough.
It makes up, for the sketchy nature of the novel’s plot to be found in-between the flashbacks and the conventional nature of the entire plot. The been-there-done-that feeling of The Silver Bear weakens a final revelation that doesn’t seem all that consequential. It’s always tempting, when considering novels written by screenwriters, to speculate as to whether the story would have been best-served on-screen, or if there’s a shelved screenplay somewhere with the same title. Chances are that, at a different time, The Silver Bear wouldn’t have seemed as compelling as it does to me at the moment. But I’ll take the small reading pleasures I get, and right now this novel is exactly the length I needed, with pretty much all the ingredients I needed for a punchy read. Now let’s go on to weightier material.