Improbable twists fall like rain in thriller

April 06, 1994|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,Sun Staff Writer

Jeffery Deaver opens his novel "Praying for Sleep" with this quotation from "Hamlet":

And can you, by no drift of conference

Get from him why he puts on this confusion

Grating so harshly all his days of quiet

with turbulent and dangerous lunacy?

It's an ambitious undertaking, to look inside the mind of a madman -- and Mr. Deaver fails completely. This thriller sheds no light at all on the mind of the madman at the story's center.

The novel begins as Michael Hrubek, an escapee from an asylum for the criminally insane, is riding in the back of a hearse. He's changed places with a dead person in order to escape.

He's making his way toward something, and Mr. Deaver lets it unfold a chapter at a time, inch by inch, psychotic episode by psychotic episode. At first, Hrubek's going east. Then, it's east to a town; then to a house in the town and finally, we learn who he's drawn to: Lis Atcheson, a high school teacher.

What's their connection? Again, it comes in an unnecessarily drawn-out explanation that isn't fully constructed for two-thirds of the book. Learning it doesn't tie all the pieces together, either; there are a few things unexplained or just plain missing, and the story suffers as a result.

Mr. Deaver links the narrative together by using the pursuit of Hrubek to connect the chapters, which are told from varying points of view. There's the husband of Lis Atcheson; the retired trooper who joins the manhunt; Lis herself; the two doctors fighting for control of the institution from which Hrubek escaped; and then there is Hrubek, whose mental agitation is described at great length but to little purpose.

There's a heavy reliance here on flashback, and after a few of them, it becomes an annoyance. Coupled with an equally heavy and incredible use of plot twists, the whole story loses appeal pretty quickly.

But this book's besetting sin isn't a lack of twists and turns: It's too little insight into the people twisting and turning. The narrative has a formulaic feel. Now it's time for a chase scene; now it's time for a sex scene; now it's time for a surprise. But formula is no substitute for characters who can engage the reader.

John D. McDonald, the creator of Travis McGee, once praised his fellow author Dick Francis as a writer who could create a protagonist a reader can care about. That's what makes thrillers and mysteries work, and it's nowhere in the 437 pages of "Praying for Sleep."

The novel is further handicapped with far too many improbable plot developments. These are particularly noticeable because the whole book takes place in a single 24-hour period.

We might be persuaded to believe that this particular 24 hours includes the rainstorm of the century; we might believe it's the night Hrubek escapes; we might even believe a couple of murders. Well, maybe one murder. This book has a lot of killing, a lot of rain, and too much obvious and compressed coincidence all around.

The denouement, which takes place in a rose garden in Lis Atcheson's greenhouse, doesn't feed believably out of the events that precede it. Yes, the villain is a surprise, and yes, if you add up the numbers and the possibilities, it could happen that way. Or, put another way, there's no reason to think it could not happen that way.

But there's almost no reason to think it did. There's no internal momentum of events, no slow development of character and plot. Mr. Deaver has not created anyone in this thriller who rises above paper-doll status, and this shortcoming flattens the narrative and plot into clunky, two-dimensional unreality. The twists and turns register on the reader much as a television does on patients waiting in an emergency room: It's there for observation, but it's neither interesting nor diverting.

It's quite possible television is the real villain here. The whole book has the faint aroma of Hollywood hopes clinging to it. Here's a suggestion for would-be readers: Skip it for now and wait for the Sunday night movie. If it reaches the small (or big) screen, no need to read the book. If it doesn't hook a producer, there's still no compelling reason to read it.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Praying for Sleep"

Author: Jeffery Deaver

Publisher: Viking

0$ Length, price: 437 pages, $21.95

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