Sunday, November 16, 2008

Mal-de-mer: Clyde Ford's PRECIOUS CARGO

This one's been kicking around for a few months, and I thought I'd tweak it a little and dump it here. It was rejected by an editor for being a little too negative, I didn't think it was THAT negative, all things considered. Particularly in the version I submitted. But it was definitely one of the lamer books I've read in a while -- made all the worst by having been written twice. I don't know which is worse -- that after having a second shot at publication (and a few years to polish it) this is the best revision the author could come up with, or that he felt the book was already perfect and didn't need revision.

But I digress...

In 2006 Precious Cargo, the second book in his nautical mystery series featuring Washington State-based “marine private eye” Charlie Noble, was self-published and promptly sank without a trace. But since then, Ford, a trained psychotherapist, "mythologist" and "much sought-after public speaker," has appeared on Oprah and received, presumably, a big-ass seal of approval. Now Vanguard Press is ”re-releasing” the book to much fanfare (and PR).

But I’m not sure the hoopla (and new lease on life) is justified. Oh, the series shows potential -- Charlie is an ex-Coast Guard boat nut who’s set himself up as a “marine private eye,” and in this one he finds himself pitted against a powerful Texas businessman who may (or may not) be smuggling Mexicans into the area on board his yacht. Images of John D. MacDonald’s beloved Travis McGee heading for battle in all his righteous fury might come to mind.

Sorry, Charlie, I know Travis McGee. And you’re no Travis McGee. Where McGee’s hard guy shell concealed a battered but compassionate heart and a mocking, self-deprecating sense of humor, nice guy Charlie is pretty much pure mush through and through, without a speck of humor. Too damn sensitive and earnest for his own damn good, he’s prone to inopportune bouts of self-analysis and occasional outbursts of (manly) weeping; so-in-tune with his feelings it gets embarrassing.

He lives on his boat, plays classical guitar, respects all women and presumably all God’s other creatures, enjoys microbrews (in moderation, of course), drinks “healthy” protein shakes and openly discusses his relationships and his feelings with his cop buddy. Now, if only he impressed readers as easily as he apparently impresses himself.

Oh, and he’s a brother.

We know because he told us. And a bad guy almost calls him the "N" word. But other than that, you'd never now. With his protein shakes and his fussy, wussy New Age sensitivity, he makes Felix Unger look like Shaft.

Despite his years in the Coast Guard and his current occupation, Charlie seems neither tough nor particularly savvy. A misguided nautical tail job almost results in his boat capsizing, and he has his waterlogged butt conveniently hauled out of the fire a few too many times by his new Native American buddy Raven. Unfortunately, Raven himself is an unlikely cross between the Great Spirit and Tonto, prone to the same sort of sensitive bellyaching and mystical psycho-babble as Charlie.

He's Native! He's mystic!

Don’t get me wrong – all the elements for a rip-snorting yarn are here: a possible serial killer, storms at sea, shootouts, assorted fisticuffs, vicious bad guys, a few refreshing twists and tantalizing suggestions of a far-reaching criminal conspiracy. But Ford takes so long to get to the point – and is so easily sidetracked by his “feelings” -- that what should be straight and hard and tight often gets warm and fuzzy and woozy. By the time the final showdown arrives and an unarmed but unfailingly erudite Charlie cautions an assailant “Don’t compound the tragedy and the sorrow,” I’m tempted to cheer for the bad guy.

Next time out, I’d suggest our hero stop being quite so noble.

We want detectives that taste good, not detectives with good taste.

Sorry, Charlie.

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Blogger Graham Powell said...

"...he makes Felix Unger look like Shaft."

Funniest line I have read in a while.

4:30 PM, November 16, 2008  
Blogger Guillaume said...

So I will skip that one. The premisse could have been good, with what we get in the news about piracy, but that looks way too gimmicky and by the number for my taste. Is it me or some writers have a tendency to make their heroes too knowledgeable, and they end up sounding pedantic?

9:01 AM, November 19, 2008  
Blogger Janet Reid said...

well, this IS pretty negative, but so what. It's well written, you have an explanation for what you didn't like, and didn't think worked well; isn't that what reviews are for?

And my favorite is the closing line about "taste good."

4:53 PM, November 20, 2008  

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