Saturday, June 12, 2010

are you afraid of the dark?: the whimper of whipped sheldon

Sidney Sheldon was one of those writers you had to read at some point growing up back home. He, along with Irving Wallace, Harold Robbins, Clive Cussler, Robin Cook and Robert Ludlum (to name just a few) marked a new phase of reading as you grew up. You had graduated from reading The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew (it's the same blessed syndicate, so don't start getting wise about boys reading adventure books meant for girls; besides, there were guys who devoured everything that came from Mills and Boon). His books were easy to read, peppered with mercifully brief passages demonstrating that the author had done some background research, seasoned with twists and topped with the occasional scene of intimacy (referred to in most publicity blurbs as "steamy s*x scenes"). Given the prudish state of education back home, you often got a lesson in anatomy thanks to Messrs. Sheldon, Wallace and Robbins.

Then you graduated to the next milestone of reading and left Sheldon's books behind. Years later, you experienced a moment of nostalgia and were tempted to take a look at the books, which entertained you as you were growing up. But you had grown up, you had read more, you had read about these authors, you had read about the structure of popular writing and you had also developed a certain withdrawn suspicion of the stuff that had entertained you -- you had "realised" how manipulative some of it had been. But you still yielded to temptation and picked up a few of those old page-turners.

Are You Afraid of the Dark? is one of only two novels by Sheldon published in the 2000s. It also ended up being his last book. Unfortunately, it did not offer any hope for the quality of writing, which has begun a steep descent in the 90s (coincidentally, this was the time I had stopped reading his stuff, otherwise the disappointment would have been severe enough to dispel any nostalgia several years later). The novel packs the familiar tropes (conspiracy, women protagonists -- a Sheldon trademark, twists, intimacy) along with sloppy writing and some outrageous howlers that would be more at home in sophomoric writing than in something written by the man who wrote The Naked Face. One wonders the "invaluable contribution" of his assistant Mary Langford, to whom special thanks go in the opening, involved writing most of this book (Sheldon was about 87 years old at the time and I wonder just how much writing he actually got done). Here's an extract from chapter 32 (page 235):

When they walked in, Diane went to the card vending machine
to purchase an hour of Internet access.
When she came back, Kelly said, "Where do we start?"
"Let's ask the computer."
They found an empty cubicle and sat down.
Kelly watched as Diane logged on to the Internet. "What happens now?"
"First we do a Google search to find the names of the other victims who were employees of KIG."
Diane typed "" and then typed in her search criteria: "obituary" and "KIG."

Why do I think this stinks? Perhaps because it just seems so amateur (I wasn't expecting William Gibson or Neal Stephenson, mind you).

Having our leading ladies use the names of famous writers (Emily Brönte, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mary Cassatt) makes sense only in a world where such names would not raise suspicion. The book isn't without its moments. I liked how the sequence where Diane and Kelly argue and hate each other's guts worked like a sequence between the leads in a buddy film (since Sheldon loves to put women in the lead, he could have done a Thelma and Louise but he decides to try Lethal Weapon with Melanie Gibson and Danielle Glover). I also liked the little surprise at the end of chapter 41 but the xylocaine in Chapter 43 destroys it. The two ladies unravel the mystery of KIG (Kingsley International Group) and we get an ending that should satisfy at least a few people, who took the trouble to read till the last chapter. It's time to return to the stuff from the 70s and 80s and wash off this unpleasant experience. I will leave you with my favourite sample of sloppiness. This is what an editor should prevent the writer from doing.

Chapter 38: he [Sam Meadows] dropped his shorts, and his organ was engorged.

Chapter 43: he [Harry Flint] dropped his shorts, and his member was stiff and turgid.

Thankfully, the book did not have more male characters inclined to doing this sort of thing. I dropped the book and its pages were thin and lifeless.


Paresh Palicha said...

Hahaha! Don't remember reading this. I better stay with the memories of The Stranger in the Mirror and the Windmills of the God.

Samrat said...

I was also a big fan of Sidney Sheldon during my late teens. Liked the plot twists, exotic settings, and of course the occasional "steamy" bits.

Other Side of Midnight,Master of the Game and Windmill of the Gods were among my favourites.

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