Friday, April 12, 2013

Curse You, Indiana Jones!

The Intelligencer

by Leslie Silbert

Published by Atria

2 Out of 5 Stars

There's a certain kind of novel that I like to blame on the Indiana Jones franchise. It appeals to academics and hobbyists who dabble in and become experts in little pockets of knowledge that, frankly, the rest of the world just doesn't give a damn about. They know their stuff, they've read their books, they're ready for the pop quiz--but it's a quiz that's never coming. All that's left is to sit back amongst one's dusty tomes and simply daydream about excitement and adventure in a foreign land where only an Academic can save the day. There will be suspense, intrigue, and, by God, there will be khakis and a whip.

Unfortunately, I'm a sucker for this type of novel. It's my guilty pleasure because it's the antithesis of the life I live, happily sitting in my papasan chair, sipping coffee, and reading book after book after book. The idea that I could be out there, saving the day, with my literary knowledge and rapier wit, is just fun. Impractical. Impossible. And did I mention fun?

However, while this is admittedly the reading equivalent of sitting down and inhaling a bag of chips and then feeling guilty later, I do have some requirements for this type of book. It has to be fast-paced, it has to be clever, it has to know its topic well (I don't mind when the narrative digresses to cleverly teach me something I did not know before), and it has to have, if we're to continue with the potato chip analogy, some texture, some flavor, some crunch. Don't hand me a bag of plain potato chips when I know that I could have a bag of cheddar-bacon-sour cream-barbecue-nacho-chicken and waffles (yeah, apparently that is a chip flavor)-smokehouse ribs-ultra-maximum-loaded-flavor-explosion. If I'm going to feel guilty later, might as well go balls out now.

Alas, The Intelligencer is a bag of plain potato chips. Silbert knows her subject well and sprinkles interesting historical tidbits throughout the novel, but everything else is just bland. Bland characters, bland dialogue, and a bland mystery. The novel consists of two alternating plot lines: one set in Elizabethan England and one set in present day New York. In Elizabethan England, playwright Christopher Marlowe lives a double life as a spy for his country, a plot which parallels that of present day Kate Morgan, grad student turned private investigator. Marlowe investigates a smuggling operation that could put his life in danger; Kate investigates a shady art dealer while also looking into the appearance of a strange book chronicling secret intel from Queen Elizabeth's own spy network. We can also assume her life will be in danger and that these two narratives will eventually converge with the present day Kate unraveling the shocking truth behind Marlowe's death (not a spoiler since Marlowe's death has always been presented as mysterious).

The alternating plotline seems unnecessary as the one about Marlowe is far superior and more interesting. The interruptions by Kate in the present day slow down the narrative and lessen the tension created in Marlowe's world. The characters are stock and their dialogue is clumsy. Kate Morgan also seems to be a carbon copy of the author, Leslie Silbert--even the way Kate is described matches Silbert's author photo. I'm not saying it's a bad thing, but I kept feeling as though I was just peering into Silbert's daydream, starring herself, and daydreams are only interesting to the person conjuring them up.

Ultimately, there was not enough to keep my interest and I stopped reading somewhere around page 100. Perhaps the mystery eventually picked up steam to carry the novel through to the end, but nothing I had read up to that point convinced me it would be worth my time to finish. Besides, I have much tastier offerings awaiting me on my bookshelves and, damn it, now I want a bag of chips.

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