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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Dominance

I probably should have known better.  On the one hand, I despise the kind of novels that have transformed Dan Brown and James Patterson into multi-millionaires.  On the other, I love “books about books,” especially novels involving mystery and murder.   Those always start with a bonus point or two in hand when I begin them, so I had high hopes for Will Lavender’s new thriller, Dominance.  My hopes, however, were misplaced in this case.

Dominance is about little Jasper College and a special night class, “Unraveling a Literary Mystery,” being taught there to an elite group of senior American Literature majors.  The most unusual thing about the class is that it is being taught via closed-circuit television from the prison cell of a former professor who is there because he murdered two female college students at a different school.  Strangely, copies of Paul Fallows novels ornamented the bodies of both victims. 

Paul Fallows, himself, is a mystery.  Despite the stature of his work, and the notoriety connecting his books to the brutal axe-murders, no one has ever seen or spoken with him.  Now, Professor Aldiss hopes that one of the nine students in his class will finally be able to solve the Paul Fallows mystery.  With that purpose in mind, he feeds them a series of tantalizing clues that will have them competing to see which of them will finally solve the riddle that has frustrated Paul Fallows scholars for decades.

Lavender presents the novel in a series of flashbacks to the 1994 class alternated with flashes forward to the present day.  One student, it seems, did make a major discovery during the class, a discovery so important that it forever changed the life of the professor and eventually led to a professorship at Harvard for the student.  The story begins on the evening of the first class, and proceeds like an out-of-control train rushing down a mountainside to its destiny. 

One can see from this brief synopsis that the book’s plot has a lot going for it.  Booklovers (who will, of course, love the premise) will be jumping all over this one – as did I.  My quarrel is not with the plot; it is with the book’s style.

Will Lavender
At first glance, Lavender’s book seems to be more than 350 pages long.  Within those pages, the author has crammed 53 chapters – which is not necessarily unreasonable.  But it turns out that the chapters are really much shorter even than one would suppose because, almost every time there is a shift between past and present, the publisher has inserted a little three-page break with a title on the middle one (“The Class,” “Iowa,” “Alex,” etc.).  That is bad enough, but it gets worse.

As the book nears its dramatic climax, the chapters grow shorter and shorter, each of them ending with the type of cliffhanger that reminds of those old Saturday morning serials kids used to love so much.  The chapters grow shorter - but not the white space between them.  I suppose that by making the reader turn the pages more often to get to the meat of the story, the publisher is hoping to build the tension involved in the reading process.  That might work on some, but many others will react as I did: with snarling frustration at the silliness of it all.

Novels that read more like screenplays are precisely why I cannot read Dan Brown and James Patterson novels.  I reluctantly add Will Lavender to the list (and I feel sure that he will not at all mind being lumped in with that highly successful pair).  Don’t get me wrong: fans of Brown and Patterson will love this book.  If you’re one of those, don’t miss Dominance.

Rated at: 3.0


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