You know from the glee which has greeted the many sound thrashings of the recent Morrissey novel that many reviewers get an almighty kick out of writing a bad review. There’s a ferocity to the wordplay, a zeal, that often accompanies an implicit sense of self-righteousness and moral rectitude (as if reviewers are the book equivalent of Vietnam vets – ‘I went there, dude, so you don’t have to’). That isn’t to say that we take no pleasure from writing a bad review (because there are pleasures to be had) but that we feel bad, often for years after (there’s a crime writer whose debut we reviewed about a decade ago who wrote begging us to take down the review – and we refused at the time – that one still makes us feel bad occasionally). All of which serves as somewhat procrastinating preamble to the fact that we really didn’t get along with Jason Starr’s Savage Lane.
What we have here is a sort of love quadrilateral, viewed from every corner: Mark Berman, a man’s man who works in the city and doesn’t read books or understand all that kind of arty crap; his wife Debs, a housewife who suspects her husband of infidelity even though she has a little thing going on the side; Karen, a neighbour, a single parent, bouncing back after a recent divorce with a string of Match.com flops; and Owen, an eighteen year old who is having an affair with Debs. Mark has a bit of a thing for Karen, and suspects she has a thing for him too – but she doesn’t and is completely oblivious. This is one of the defining characteristics of Savage Lane: people are oblivious to the most obvious things. What’s more, the characters turn on a dime – so one character who loves another suddenly suspects that the object of their love is actually a murderer, only to switch back about half an hour later. These people are goldfishes. Worse than this, though, this is characterisation driven by plot rather than plot driven by characterisation. That’s a big no-no.
So: one character kills another character and seeks to keep their part in the murder hidden. The murderer has a mild case of hearing the dead person giggle in their ear for a bit (except, oh hang on, it isn’t the most recent murder victim, it’s an older murder victim, because the murderer has done this before and despite being not the brightest bulb in the box got away with it too – if only Scooby Doo had been around all of the bloodshed of Savage Lane could have been avoided). At first, the disappearance is greeted with bemused indifference (it takes the daughter of the disappeared to ring the police), but when the media gets a sniff it all ramps up a few octaves (although you might question, as I questioned, the possibility of media camping out on someone’s door before the police so much as contact the number one suspect in a possible murder enquiry). It’s all pretty dumb is what we are saying. Stuff happens. People react to it in a way that often beggars belief. The worst thing about the book, though, is the credit that the author gives to his characters without giving us any reason to believe in the credit (so we’ll learn one character is an amazing judge of character in the same breath as the character will question how they could ever miss something REALLY OBVIOUS when they are normally such a good judge of character).
“The rage in his eyes was terrifying. She was normally so intuitive, was able to read people so well. How had she missed this?”
This is Karen talking, by the way – the woman who has been defined to us as a character who can miss the fact that a married guy is obviously massively in love with her. Yes Karen, you are so intuitive. Later in the book, when Mark thinks two people are in league together based on nothing, or when Mark’s daughter Riley believes what she believes in spite of such things as facts and evidence, you start to wonder if everyone in Savage Lane – to paraphrase Owen – has their head up their ass.
The plausibility gets in the way of the read. You start to question motivation and action and you are alienated from what’s going on to the extent that you read alternatively tutting and rolling your eyes. Now, Jason Starr is the recipient of dozens of awards, has written a vast number of novels and lots and lots of comics and has a stellar array of author buddies (like Lee Child and Bret Easton Ellis) so quite possibly: what do we know? But on the basis of Savage Lane, what we know is: we won’t be in a massive hurry to read anything else by him any time soon.
Any Cop?: If you look on Good Reads, you’ll see dozens and dozens of five star reviews for this book. Which makes us think: there are a lot of idiots in the world.