The writer and comic book artist, Jef Mallett, once said, ‘Writing well means never having to say, “I guess you had to be there”’. I can imagine Richard House has read these wise words, or something like it. His descriptive prose is worth a hundred picture postcards, like this moment, in Sutler, as the protagonist views the Greek island of Kos from a passenger ship:
‘… beaches, umbrellas kicked by the wind, stubby palms along the coastal road, white hotel developments tipped back in their compounds, behind them a sharp fin of a mountain steep enough to show exposed rock above the olive groves.’
Why, then, would House – the author of two previously published novels, a film maker, artist and lecturer – want to produce an ‘enhanced’ e-book version of this new novel, with pictures and videos serving only to interrupt the flow of the story? What’s worse is that most e-reader devices cannot even display those pictures and videos. I opened the review copy of Sutler on Android tablets and phones, a couple of iPads, an iPhone and several PCs. I downloaded extra software for each gadget, and finally, the black square I’d previously seen on the page started to squirm; an animated gif showing a creeping scorpion or two. But I had no luck with the videos. Instead, all I saw was a break in the text with the oddly phrased sentence: ‘A video content is located here but your device doesn’t support it’. If you’re really interested, you can always set your e-reader aside, or click away and open a web browser, and see it all on the publisher’s website, but why bother?
I’ll admit, I’m no computer expert, but I’m not Luddite either. I love e-readers. I bought my first when the people who now cradle their Kindle in bed were still romanticising about the smell of glue and the feel of real paper. So, if I’m getting frustrated trying to view the enhancements in this book, thinking I might miss a clue vital to the narrative, then less computer-literate readers will really struggle. Which is a shame, because anyone who loves a deeply-layered crime and conspiracy novel could happily get caught up in this tale, rather than waste time getting tangled in technology. Sutler has intrigue, international settings, devious corporations, dodgy back-alley negotiations, explosions, excitement and a thrilling inter-continental chase. Stephen Lawrence Sutler is on the run after being accused of embezzling US$53 million from his employers, a Halliburton-type company working in post-war reconstruction, called HOSCO (Halliburton was originally called HOWCO). The company has sent an insurance claims investigator, Parson, to track down Sutler. An insurance investigator might not sound like the most riveting adversary, but it’s exactly because Parson is out of his depth – and that Sutler, too, is no professional fugitive – that the hunt is so captivating.
Luckily, there is a regular, non-enhanced e-version of Sutler available, compatible with all types of e-readers. And, although the three subsequent parts of this quartet – The Massive, The Kill and The Hit – will be released individually as enhanced e-books too, they will be collected in a single hardback, entitled The Kills, available later this year. The enhancements, therefore, don’t seem to be necessary to the story, which makes me wonder why they’re there at all, except as a marketing gimmick or to show how talented Richard House is. His writing does that more than adequately.
The real question is whether there is a need for any kind of enhanced e-novel. And I can imagine an author creating a piece of work, especially a thriller, that would benefit from adding extra material. The reader could follow internet links or examine the film footage to find extra clues, for example. But, for the moment, it looks like the technology still limits the opportunities for ambitious authors like House, and serves only to give marketing departments something else to play with.
Any Cop?: Sutler is a smart, atmospheric, maze of a political thriller, with House always in control, expertly guiding the reader through every twist and turn, and never failing to entertain along the way. But opt for the text-only version, the story works well enough without the so-called enhancements.