By Brad Meltzer (W)
Published by Grand Central Publishing, 2008; 336 pages; $25.99
Comparisons between The Book of Lies and The DaVinci Code are probably unavoidable; they’re mystery / murder / thrillers in which the protagonists seek to solve an ancient mystery. In some ways, this is like The DaVinci Code for comics fans, because the Siegel family and the creation of Superman are at the core of this story.
Without giving away anything more than is what included on the inside flap, Cal Harper is reunited with his estranged father under peculiar circumstances. As they end up in the sights of a murderous religious zealot, they attempt to simultaneously solve the mystery of who killed Mitchell Siegel in 1932, discover the weapon that Cain used to kill Abel, and save their own lives as the mystery deepens and the body count rises.
This book has a fun plot that never suffers under the weight of the conspiracy structure. Meltzer paces and places the interwoven storylines to great effect, weaving in and out of them to reveal just enough information to propel the story and keep the drama tense.
He does a great job of rewarding the reader upon revealing a few mysteries — there are some “hidden in plain sight” clues dispersed throughout the book that draw absolutely no attention to themselves at the time. His red herrings range from the subtle to the overt, and it kept me guessing and then sure … then guessing again and then sure … until the point when he decides the reader should know.
The characters are diverse and believable, and it’s easy to find oneself rooting for and against the same character with just a few minor turns. The good guys have their flaws and the villains have their virtues. There is very little ambiguity that’s not easily justified by the story.
The comic book aspect of the book is likely an attraction for comics readers, but it should in no way be a deterrent for non-comics fans. The Siegel / Superman content is less geek-out potential and more like a nod of appreciation for the history; it’s presented in a completely accessible way for those who’ve never read a Superman comic or even cared to.
As much as I enjoyed the overall story and plot, there is some downright painful writing in this book. Pacing of tense scenes is completely derailed by characters needing to show how witty or cynical they are, only these interjections of personality come off as awkwardly forced.
Prior to reading this book, the only Meltzer writing I was familiar with was from his stints in the comics. It’s a striking contrast — his run on Justice League of America was unpleasant at times because of how little information he chose to give and how unclear some of the dialogue was (not to mention how slowly it was paced). Yet here, he takes no chances on subtlety. There are some absolute groaners in the narration. Take these, for example:
p.256: We got four Band-Aids to close his wound … As the three of us know, some things can’t be fixed by a Band-Aid.
p.314: For those few seconds, as it passes, my father is young again. Just like on the night he pushed my mom.
“I forgive you, Lloyd.” I take a long, deep breath. “I just don’t want to see you.”
Still gripping the base of the window, my father simply stands there. There are some prisons with no bars.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t dig your way out.
I got through 250 pages of that stuff before I was like “Okay, that does it — I’m going to start keeping track of this junk.”
The Grade: B
Yeah, the writing is terrible in places. It’ll pull you out of the story at some points and make you wonder why you’re caring about these characters at others. There are some inconsistencies in the plot when you go back and think about them at the end. The story drips with sentimentality like a broken faucet.
I’d like to grade the book more harshly for those things, but at the same time, I definitely enjoyed reading it. I was actually inspired to action by the ending, as mushy as it was at points. I’d absolutely recommend the book, provided the reader knows what they’re getting into:
It’s a fun and addictive mystery, sometimes aided by and hindered by the relationships between the characters, cleverly supported by a creatively supplemented history, broken into dozens and dozens of small (sometimes inexplicably divided) chapters.
So yeah, it’s The DaVinci Code for comic book fans.