Bring back Jekyll and Hyde…
Andrew J Rush is a middlingly successful writer of traditional style crime novels. But he has an alter-ego – under the pen name of Jack of Spades he writes grubby and graphic noir shockers. No-one knows about this secret – not even his wife and children. But when an elderly woman accuses him of plagiarism, Rush feels his whole reputation is threatened and, as he finds his life spiralling out of control, Jack comes more to the surface, tempting Rush to do things his respectable side would be horrified by.
One has to wonder why, when Robert Louis Stevenson had already made such a great job of writing The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Ms Oates felt that it would be a good idea to re-hash the story rather poorly. I’ve said this before about other books and writers, but if an author sets herself up to invite comparison, she really needs to make sure that her skills are up to the task. This is nothing more than a short piece of pulp fiction – psychologically weak, poor characterisation, unbelievable hole-filled plot and none of the insights on morality and society that give depth to the original. The horror that comes through so well in Jekyll and Hyde is entirely absent from this, partly because Oates seems unable to decide if she is going for horror or humour. While Oates writes reasonably well overall, there are some horrendously clanging awfulnesses in my proof copy which I seriously hoped would be edited out before the final version was published. A sneak peek at the Kindle sample, however, suggests sadly not…
…as the ax-blade crashed and sank into the splintering desk beside my head, missing my head by inches; by which time I’d fallen heavily onto the floor…
(Hmm! One has to assume he’d left his head on the desk when he fell on the floor – detached, one wonders, or just an exceptionally long neck…?)
Andrew J Rush is a man with an outsize ego whose level of success hasn’t reached the heights he would like. On the outside, he’s a happily married man who fits well in to the suburban life that he lives. But on the inside he’s a self-centred egotist with a well developed streak of misogyny, and a history of using other people’s ideas to his own advantage. It’s clear from early on that he enjoys the freedom to express the less pleasant aspects of his personality through his Jack of Spades books. He aspires to be the next Stephen King, only sleazier, and his obsession with King provides much of the humour, along with some barbed observations on the world of crime writing and publishing.
But I’m afraid the humour wears thin pretty quickly, leaving very little else to admire. The Andrew/Jack personality split never feels real and the novella doesn’t achieve the level of darkness I think it’s aiming for. There’s more to writing dark stories, even black comedies, than just tossing in a bit of violence every now and again. Given how he has treated her over many years, Andrew’s wife would undoubtedly have left him – Oates fails totally to provide her with a characterisation that would have made it seem reasonable for her to have stayed with him. And that’s the problem with the whole thing really – nothing rings true. It feels as if the work hasn’t been put in to create enough of a coherent and credible base to carry the reader along when the plot necessarily stretches belief towards the end.
A disappointment, I’m afraid, that leaves me unenthusiastic about trying any of her other books.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Grove Atlantic.