Thursday, July 23, 2009

JD's Take: Personal Effects: Dark Art (Hutchins, Weisman)

This was a book with a gimmick. It's a supernatural detective novel that comes with a stack of papers, invitations, business cards, drivers licenses, maps, and artwork. The idea is that the added content will make the mystery more engrossing, drawing you in by letting you see the evidence, piece together the clues, call cellphones and check voicemail, investigate online information and so on. I picked it thinking "well gosh, Alternate Reality has really caught on and here's a book version. Clever!"

Predictably, the gimmick fell far short of the premise. The book itself was passable... a pretty bland little mystery filled with some supernatural stuff that failed to tingle the spine sufficiently. The characters themselves were... almost painfully "in-touch"? You have the main character: an Art Psychologist who is dedicated to making the world a little brighter by having viscious killers that society has locked away in a stereotype of an insane asylum (they built it DOWN instead of up! Spooky!) by making them do finger paintings, through which they tell him all about their insecurities and whatnot. He has a younger brother who is a genius NYU film student who is heavily into parkour, and a girlfriend who is smoking hot and tattooed and a huge nerd who eats potato chips and plays videogames all day for her blog and never needs to work out. Oh, and she's also a fact-checker for a newspaper, giving her great connections for researching stuff. Oh, and his father is the Assistant DA trying the case he is assigned to. How convenient that we will use all of these disparate skills and connections in the solving of this mystery!

Anyway, one of the things the book does well is to impart a sense of peril about the characters who surround the protagonist. Throughout the book you feel like you are one panicked moment away from utter devastation. In part this is because he loves them all so hard and appreciates them and needs them and you just KNOW that's the Kiss of Death. Partly it is because their deaths are fortold like 10 pages in, and that is also a Kiss of Death. But here's the thing: nothing bad happens to anyone. Even the *very* secondary character who is marked for death early in the book (and whose death would have made the whole plot more convincing and impactful) comes out unscathed. By the end, I felt kinda... ripped off that all of the foreshadowing and dread and suspense ended with smiling rainbows and chocolate.

If you've noticed that I haven't mentioned all of the non-book content so far, you've made a very good observation! On the plus side, the quality of the inserts was quite good. The drivers license was laminated plastic, the certificates were on crappy government paper while the CIA memos were on nice stationary. Nice production value! The problem with the Book Tied Into Clues concept is that it totally falls apart if you neglect to make any of the non-book content meaningful. Let me itemize:
  • Most of the stuff ends up being very tangentally connected (birth and death certificates for a couple of minor, off-screen support characters, for instance, which have no bearing on the mystery).
  • When there are phone numbers you can call (to, say, check voicemails) the messages aren't reprinted in the book (good! Make me do it in real life!) but they are also WORTHLESS. Every single syllable of the messages can be easily extracted from the in-book context and they are totally mundane anyway ("Son. I'll be late to the funeral. Love, Dad.").
  • On top of the above, the outgoing messages on the voicemails are totally out of synch with the book. At a point in the book where the main character has only barely heard of the case, the outgoing message you get is "Sorry I can't come to the phone. This case has taken hold on me in unexpected ways. I love you all" or something. It totally destroys the sense of immediacy that the whole concept is doing its best to impart.
  • Some of the clues have puzzles in them. Neat! I spent 15 minutes deciphering a card that was totally blank except for some brail writing. This was a fucking waste of time and opportunity, since it was never mentioned in the book, added absolutely nothing, and provided no clues or insight. Gah!
  • Websites! There are several! One of them was missing, one of the them provided a clue to the characters in the book but NOT TO THE VISITOR, and one of them was actually kinda cool (a blog run by the protagonists girlfriend that actually developed her character a bit and lent authenticity... though had no relevance to the story).
  • There was some artwork included. There was artwork in the book, the clever manipulation of which led to important clues. There were not connected. The included artwork had no relevance to the book at all.
Basically, in order for this to have been a compelling gimmick, the toys had to have relevance to the story. I needed to be able to solve puzzles and work out connections that weren't given to me in the book. Honestly, the book shouldn't even have *had* an ending until I solved things my damn self. The narrative should have cut off suddenly at the end and begun with a "Previous researcher missing: see what you can do" introduction. As is, they could have dropped all of the props... I'd still be left with a mediocre mystery novel but at least I wouldn't be angry about it.


J.C. Hutchins said...

Hey JD,

I'm sorry my novel didn't live up to your expectations, but thank you for making the time to read the book and write a review.


LisaBit said...

J.C. - I haven't read the book myself, but I'll probably take a look in spite of JD's misgivings, if only because he and I do love a good debate about books.

I'm curious - did you come up with the idea for the book's augmented material yourself, or was it a joint effort with another contributor? I think it's a cool idea, though maybe the execution was a bit rocky for this first attempt :)


J.C. Hutchins said...

Hi Lisa,

Thanks for considering checking out Dark Art. The ARG-meets-novel concept and Personal Effects property were conceived by co-author Jordan Weisman, who is one of the "founding fathers" of the Alternate Reality Game storytelling model. His team supervised much of the out-of-book experience, though I contributed to its plot points.

As for the success of its execution, I'll let you and other readers decide. The book has received a great deal of praise, and was a starred review in Publisher's Weekly.

Again, thank you for your curiosity and consideration ... and to JD, for reading the novel, and sharing his thoughts.


Christin said...

Hahahaha awesome.