19 December 2020

Even Steven (book review)

Even Steven

Even Steven by John Gilstrap
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this book for the second time after reading Writing the Thriller by Tricia Macdonald Skillman. It was 18 years after my first reading, so I remembered very little of the plot or the characters, and. since John Gilstrap was mentioned in and contributed to Writing the Thriller as an established thriller writer, I wanted to see how well one of his books fitted into the genre, and how Skillman's advice was applied. My conclusion was that it wasn't applied very well.

Reading Even Steven therefore left me with a somewhat higher opinion of Writing the Thriller (my review here) as I think that if some if the advice in there had been consistently applied, Even Steven would have been a better book.

Spoiler Alert If you haven't read Even Steven, be warned that what follows constains spoilers

Even Steven seems to belong to three of the sub-genres mentioned in Writing the Thriller: Psychological suspense, and Women and Children in Jeopardy suspense. There is also a certain element of Action/Adventure Suspense.

The psychological suspense is seen mainly in the first part of the book, where the characters spend a lot of time worrying about what might happen to them. The danger they are in is largely imagined future danger rather than actual present danger.

The basic plot is quite simple: Bobby and Susan Martin are on a camping trip in a nature reserve trying to work through their grief at the loss of a stillborn child. A child who has escaped from kidnappers comes into their camp[, chased by one of the kidnappers trying to recapture him. Bobby kills the kidnapper in a fight, discovers that he has a police badge on him, and they return home in a panic, taking the child with them. Susan sees him as a heaven-sent substitute for their lost son Steven, and names the kidnapped child after him.

The child had been kidnapped by contractors to gangsters as an incentive for his stepfather to pay his drug and gambling debts and his mother, April Simpson, is unable to pay them. She pleads with the gangsters who don't care how she gets the money, and will allow her son to die in the wilderness if they don't get the money -- the debt, plus interest, plus expenses -- the fee paid to the sub-contractors who carried out the actual kidnapping, one of whom had been killed by Bobby Martin, leaving only his mentally defective brother, Samuel, who has now lost the child and must try to get him back.

There are several info-dumps of the backstories of the characters. The backstory is important in a psychological thriller to explain the motivation of the characters. The problem is that a lot of this psychological build-up is simply glossed over in the end. Throughout the story the reader is impressed with Susan's psychological need which leads her to see the kidnapped child as her own and her fear and refusal to give him up, but the reader is not told how this was resolved.

There are long descriptions of Samuel's mental state, and how he alternates between being more stupid and less stupid than he looks, but in the end we learn nothing of his fate. The daughter of one of the gangster leaders is injured in a scene in which her father is killed by a rival gang leader, but we learn nothing of her fate either.

The problem is that far more information is given about some of the characters than is needed to explain their motivation and behaviour. If we are told about them in that much detail we begin to care about what happens to them, but then the author simply drops them without explanation. The book either needed a couple of extra chapters to tie up the loose ends, or it should have been cut by about a third, sparing the reader the unnecessary psychological details.

I suspect that if I had not read Writing the Thriller I might have been a lot less critical of this book, but it can, as I hoped it might, also make me more critical of my own writing, even if I'm not writing thriller/suspense novels. And perhaps thrillers are just not my kind of reading. Perhaps lovers of thrillers will be less critical than I was. Many of the things that others see as genres (suspense, horror, action, mystery etc) I tend to see as story elements. If one of those elements predominates or is absent the story seems unbalanced to me. 

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