Review: 1st Case, James Patterson & Chris Tebbetts

My brain on sleep dep: relies on instant coffee and cheap thrills.

It’s been years since I read a James Patterson novel. I used to read him in the days of the Alex Cross novels that made him famous, like Along Came a Spider and Kiss the Girls. Now he’s the world’s most prolific crime author, and has taken to collaborations in recent years, like this one with Chris Tebbetts. I was curious to see how they measured up and looking forward to a good murder mystery next in my stack of “easy reading for new motherhood” titles. Ready for some nice bloody corpses.

But I ended up disappointed with this story about Angela, an MIT dropout with the IQ of a genius, who gets offered an internship with the FBI thanks to her tech and coding skills ā€“ only to get in over her head when she becomes the target of the killer they’re seeking, who both lures and tracks his victims with the use of an insidious chat app.

I can’t fault plot or pace. The tech aspect is convincing, and the story unfolds at a breakneck speed. I inhaled it like a dog with a bowl of kibble. But I am not a fan of thrillers with chapters of only a few pages each. It feels too obvious a suspense-building tactic, like the authors (or more likely publishers) assume that modern readers have zero attention spans and thus aim to capture and hold the attention of the lowest common denominator.

And while plot and pace are vital for crime they are not everything. Without characterisation there is no point, you won’t care if detectives solve crimes or victims escape. People like Val McDermid, for example, or Ian Rankin, even Lee Child who is of comparable paciness, accessibility and fame, manage to write three-dimensional characters, thrilling plots and all the while evoke a powerful sense of place, while still using the formulas of their genres.

This writing, by comparison, lacked nuance and sophistication. Plain is fine, but at (the wrong) times in later chapters it abandoned plainness in favour of wordy overstating of dramatic moments, making me cringe, though to give examples would also give spoilers. Imagine though, that it is already perfectly clear the worst night of a heroine’s life is upon her, and that the climax is there, since a killer’s hands are about her throat, and the author writes, “it was the worst night of her life and the climax was upon her! It was all about to be over within moments!” That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about.

There was little humour, or atmosphere, or attention paid to psychology. The characterisation seemed token, an afterthought, in both good guys and bad, especially for a writer whose early novels built such complex, disturbing portraits. A few paragraphs in a (three-page) chapter after the climax was deemed sufficient to explain to the reader the killer’s identity and motivations. I’m forced to the unwelcome conclusion that James Patterson might not have all that much to do with his collaboration novels, or at least not much of his abilities concentrated upon them.

Overall this felt like eating a whole bag of party mix lollies. Each chapter a sugar hit, but by the end you’re feeling like you need to go and eat a proper meal. It didn’t satisfy my need for a nice fat, juicy, blood-spattered crime novel. I’ll have to try again…

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