Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Review: For Keeps, by Aaron Paul Lazar (2012)

Aaron Paul Lazar seems like a very nice guy, and his writing reflects this. His prose is easy and pleasant. His characters are nice. Even the murders aren't too nasty. As you might guess, this presents a bit of a storytelling problem: there is a severe lack of tension. Sure, people get murdered, even those close to the main character, Sam Moore, but Lazar's tone suggests that everything is going to be alright in the end. A compelling narrative requires real tension, a fear that something is at stake and could be lost forever. It's clear that this is simply not the case for Lazar's characters, who are too perfect, and who Lazar loves perhaps a little too much.

Sam Moore is a retired doctor married to a wonderful woman named Rachel, who has MS. I liked Rachel. Lazar doesn't sentimentalize her disease, and she provides some laughs when we first meet her. Sam's children are grown up, and his grandchildren are still kids. His tranquil retirement is interrupted by a call from a longtime friend, Lou, a police detective, who wants Sam to come check out a body. Sam, juggling gardening supplies and plants, can't quite figure out why, until he sees the woman, a weekend fling from his distant past. Next to her strangled body is a phone book with Sam's name circled. He needs to figure out why.

Helping Sam out is a green marble that holds the spirit of his brother, Billy, who seems eternally trapped as a five-year-old. Billy sometimes communicates with Sam by whisking him into the past and showing him clues. Sam himself can never interact with these memories; he can only observe. Billy serves mostly as a plot device. His object is to keep the plot moving forward, and, really, the plot could not move forward as it does without Billy's interventions. There's not really a human connection with Billy. He seems more like a thing from above, the author's tool, and sometimes it's not very clear why he vibrates so intensely in Sam's pocket except to remind the reader he's there.

This is book three in the Sam Moore Mysteries series, but you don't really need to have read the previous books to understand this one. Lazar helpfully explains everything, and he also provides a plot synopsis of book two, Terror Comes Knocking. That this is called a mystery is misleading. There aren't enough characters to throw the reader off the scent of the real killer. In fact, the identity of that killer is obvious fairly early on, and details about this killer are also obvious far before they're revealed. The capture and unveiling of the killer happens way too easily. This seemingly clever person gives up without a fight, and even goes so far as to give away more details of their scheme without batting an eye. But, really, uncovering the murderer is not Lazar's ultimate goal.

A time travel element comes into play over halfway through the novel, and this is introduced only to right all wrongs. I said before that Sam can only observe when Billy takes him into the marble, but eventually Sam can do more than observe. He can act and he can change events. That Billy has the ability to transport his brother through time and that Sam can actually affect the time continuum is not something that is questioned or discussed. Lazar writes movingly in an article about the death of a character he loves, and it's clear that the time travel element is meant to undo that tragedy.

I think the problem is that Lazar loves his characters too much. They're based largely off himself and his own family, and this likely motivated him to change the rules of Billy's marble. It seems unfair that a family that is perfect and has everything any family could possibly need can also go back in time to correct things when something bad happens. Why should the Moore family have access to such an ability when other less fortunate families could use it more? Why have it at all? It's a part of real life that things can't be undone, as much as we might wish they can be.

I could see the makings of a good story in the early chapters, and Lazar's storytelling shines at other moments as well, such as the aforementioned death of a loved one. There's just no shades of grey here. The villains are vile and one-dimensional, and the good guys are angelic. Sam is such a nice guy, and he spends his entire day gardening. Every night he feasts on a luxurious meal prepared by Rachel, and now and then they host their children and grandchildren, though we don't really get to know them. Andy is in Afghanistan at the start of the novel. Beth is a lesbian, and we meet her new partner, Nel, towards the end of the novel, and she is far more angelic than the rest of the characters combined. This is all sweet, it really is, but it's difficult to connect with on a human level.

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