Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Crevice: A Free Book review

I've pretty much decided not to bother with negative reviews, except that I may occasionally list free books worth avoiding along with a quick explanation of why.

The Crevice (audiobook here) by William J. Burns and Isabel Ostrander is exceptional, however, so I'll explain why in a sense it's a good example of a bad example. For a start, a quick perusal of the audiobook summary and the article on William J. Burns should give you a justifiable suspicion: yes, this is an ego trip for Burns, who, as Henry Blaine ("the Master Mind," yet!), is even more heroic than he thinks, if possible.

Now, that's annoying, but what tempted me to stop almost as soon as I started was the stereotypical portrayal of a minister as obsequious and hypocritical. It's possible to have such a character without stooping to stereotype--for example, the Rev. William Collins in Pride and Prejudice. And he's present at the end, too, just to reinforce the point that he still hasn't learned anything and is a far less noble character than Blaine, who has magnanimously chosen to reform a minor criminal the reverend would have preferred to rot in prison. And in case we're too oblivious to comprehend an already ham-handed bit of propaganda, it's spelled out for us:

"If I'd gone to any Sunday school he presided over, when I was a
kiddie, I'd have been a train-robber now!" he observed darkly.

There are of course some perfunctory references to God, but Blaine himself is too modern for that. But what is his track record, even taking the story on its own terms?

1. He manages to cow a subordinate who has an attack of conscience (he's called on to lie a lot and betray confidences) with the observation that, sure, the man is betraying an innocent girl, but Blaine's own client is an innocent girl who has been betrayed. So two wrongs do make a right, apparently.

2. He talks a woman into abandoning her scruples against a villain's advances, the better to obtain information from him. This leads to considerable tragedy--a pair of deaths, among other things--and he doesn't even get much information out of it. Them's the breaks, though, and the silly minister probably couldn't have done it.

And I'll skip some essentially criminal activities such as chloroforming a night watchman and burgling a safe to get evidence--that was occasionally done at this period, sometimes even by cops, it seems.

In short, Blaine came across to me at least as a rather repugnant object, and that put me off the story. But the mystery itself is somewhat pedestrian. I figured out most of the mystery easily enough as information became available, and what wasn't fairly obvious came across as hokum. Oddly, we don't even find out what "the crevice" is until late in the story, and it's not convincing either. (I supposed it would be the villains' lair.)

About the only point of interest is a cryptographic anticipation of Leet:

"...we find that '3' when viewed from the
under side of the paper will look very much like an English _E_; 7
like _T_; 9 like _P_; 2 like _S_, and so forth."

On the other hand, if you're interested to see how far back attitudes like Blaine's go--well, they go back beyond this book, but this is a good example of the preening self-assurance of an early modern thinker, blind to his faults and contradictions.

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