Criminal Paradise, Redux

Speaking of book reviews, you may remember my unusual post about Criminal Paradise, a new crime novel that’s so cynical and so yucky in a scene involving the narrator taking advantage of a woman…that I recommended avoiding it. (I also had to wonder just how out to lunch the author’s editor was in reading that particular section during the editing stage.) Well, Paul Goat Allen, writing in The Chicago Tribune, has similar feelings about it.

Publishers Weekly, ahem, said: “This California noir, Thomas’s first novel, fails to deliver on its promising opening. When smalltime crook Robert Rivers and his partner, Switch, rob the Cow Town, a restaurant owned by Orange County entrepreneur Lewis McFadden, they discover more than a lot of cash in the safe. A photograph of a naked Vietnamese girl who looks like an underage teenager suggests McFadden is into the flesh trade. While Switch is out of town, Rivers and his biker friend Reggie England break into McFadden’s house, where they find the Vietnamese girl, Song, tied to a bed. After they bring Song back to Switch’s place, England rapes her while Rivers is gone. Soon afterward, Rivers has sex with Song, who’s actually 19, that might or might not be consensual. These scenes not only undermine sympathy for Rivers, they also conflict with the subtlety of earlier chapters. From then on—through Song’s recapture by McFadden, a sex slave auction and an unconvincing final chapter involving the revelations of Rivers’s landlady—overblown sex and violence hijack the plot.”

On the other hand, the great Ken Bruen, who must’ve been stoned or just read the first few chapters, blurbs it as: “Criminal Paradise is one hell of a story. Robert Rivers is a superb character: the wry voice, so full of compassion and weary knowledge; women would kill for this guy. The style is truly like Elmore Leonard. Send me anything Steven M. Thomas writes; he’s the rare and real deal.”

And to give you an idea of how jaded and out-of-touch a publicity department can become, just feast your eyes on Ballantine’s description of the novel: “The literature of larceny welcomes a newcomer with some serious chops, as Steven M. Thomas muscles his way to a place at the table–elbow-to-elbow with Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen–courtesy of a harrowing, hilarious, two-fisted, hard-boiled thriller that’s pure heaven for anyone who loves a hell of a crime novel.” (There’s not a hint of Leonard or Hiaasen in this thing, but then who knows how much of the novel anybody read.) Yeah, that’s their job, but still, the facile “literature of larceny,” breezy and blithe, coupled with “harrowing, hilarious…hard-boiled” that’s “pure heaven” really takes consonance and reality to new lows.

The usually ‘tarded Harriet Klausner actually notes the same problem I did: “This is an interesting crime caper that loses some of its charm with the transformation of River from a likable heroic thief to a disappointing user-predator when he has sex with Song even if she is a consenting adult…” …although as usual she manages to flub her lines and fall gracelessly off stage head-first into the orchestra pit. (The crack-addled dissonant echo between the PW review and her attempt at telling readers about the problem does raise an eyebrow.)

Some Amazon readers acknowledge the moral problems, but still give the book four stars. Frankly, and to be blunt, I see it this way: if you were to attend a reading and the author took a dump on stage half-way through, you wouldn’t tell people afterwards that it was a great reading except for “a little incident.” (Unless, I suppose, if it was Seamus Heaney.)


  1. Nick says

    This raises an interesting dilemma, Jeff. Because it suggest that there is an inbuilt bias in fiction that cannot be transgressed. And if it cannot be transgressed then how can any ‘truth’ of life be derived at? An abberant morality (or lack of one) in a main character is unacceptable by default, although fiction – as ought all art unless its purpose is just ‘play’ and not one or the other or a bit of both – to be about getting at the ‘truth’ of life, people. Rivers is like that and that is the truth of him, the fact that he is the main character raises all sorts of problems therein. If we cannot sympathise with the main character then the whole enterprise is unacceptable to us- but does that automatically mean unreadable? And where is the truth of that? That is what he is like, he just happens to be the main character. But by default the main character needs to be sympathetic to the reader for it – whatever ‘it’ is, – to work. But where is the truth of that? Is the whole enterprise not inherently biased as art before it has even begun, every time? We bring that bias with us as readers, our morality muddying its achievement or otherwise as a work of art. Were Rivers not to be the main character, but a villainous one or morally ambiguous one on the ‘other side’ or space of that inner room we place characters in, when reading a book, across that inner moral divide, then we can buy it.

    The only way such a main character can be acceptable, it seems, is when there is a supra-narrative going on, the author overlays a morality by event or outcome, or makes those around such a main character so unlikeable and deserving of some sort of just desserts that it is acceptable, he or she becomes some sort of angel of punishment, like Lecter (the caricature his screen version ended up) becomes, to name but one.

    I haven’t read the book, but based on the account you and others have given I too find it icky. Perhaps the ickyness lies in this: there seems no indication that the author finds anything bothersome about it and to counter that has embedded a supra-narrative that can be interpreted beyond the actual events and behaviour of the main character.

    But then it brings us back to the dilemma: we bring an inbuilt bias to art, fiction expecially, that tells a story. We base our view upon what we in the main instinctively consider to be right and wrong behaviour as a species. But some don’t share those instincts. Some actually don’t. Some might actually write books. Are we to say that theirs is any less of an artistic achievement because they don’t? And does that basic instinct we have about what is right and wrong in life have anything to do with what can be right and wrong in art as an edifice? Some people are actually like that. That is a truth, fact. One is made a main character. There is the internal truth of a novel, which creates its own rules. But, it seems our basic tenets of morality have to be present in that world every time to make it valid as a work of art.

    The book has that icky act by the main character. that might not be right for the morality of most of us (me included, I hasted to add) but does that aspect in the book inherently make it a bad work of art? Does our morality have any place in deciding whether something is a good or bad work of art? How can we achieve any real objectivity as reviewers when we seem inseparable from that inbuilt moral bias that might have no place in determining whether it is good or bad art? Or maybe it does?

  2. jeff VanderMeer says

    It’s a bad work of art because it’s cynical, because I believe it’s gratuitous, unnecessary, and not in keeping with the guy’s character to that point.

    I read tons of Decadent literature featuring cannibalism, murder, and much worse. I don’t have a problem with “immorality” or with anti-heroes. But in this case, it’s sleaze, not art.

    But I really appreciate your thoughtful


  3. Nick says

    Ah, well on that level, it clearly fails then. I found it hard to get past your moral outrage (please do not interpret that as a snide comment, it is not meant so, the Net is still a bloody minefield when it comes to conveying tone) to register your artistic critique, Jeff. Which you have just expressed succinctly in the above four sentences. Morally bankrupt and crap as art. That’ll do for me.

    Thomas is not the first author (or the last) who may be a blind man in the world of his own making, it just makes you wonder what the editor was thinking. If that can get through, hope for all us would-bes, such as me, maybe… Or perhaps no hope at all.

  4. says

    My moral outrage is completely because I find the scene so gratuitous. Anyone can and should get away with anything in fiction and an ethical baseline be damned. So, I failed to express that properly, perhaps. What I believe is that the book/author fails the main character by making him do something he doesn’t seem capable of purely for salacious reasons. I’m also fascinated by other reactions to the book, frankly, which is another reason I posted.


  5. Becky says

    So Jeff, Harriet Klauser = not a good reveiwer? I’ve never read many of her reviews but I never noticed that you disliked her reviewing before. Unless, I misread the above.

  6. says

    Harriet supposedly reviews a ridiculous number of books per week. It’s simply impossible. Also, she frequently gets the details wrong. For my book Veniss Underground, for example, she mentions a rape. There is no rape or anything even close to that in VU.


  7. Nick says

    Yes, apparently she speed reads. She can do nothing all day every day but read books and supposedly eat and drink and tend to her toilet needs.

    Never mind being able to do anything other than give the most superficial of attendance to a novel, unless she is the world’s greatest genius. Judging by the doesn’t-really-say anything-much facile nature of her reviews, I doubt it.

    There is also quite a bit of speculation as to whether she actually exists or not, merely a composite, a reviewer equivalent of film’s prolific director, Alan Smithee.

    Actual photos of her seem hard to come by, as well. For someone who is the most prolific reviewer in the world, that’s a tad odd. Maybe she just doesn’t want the publicity and is too busy reading to have her photo taken.

    And as for photos:

    Are they the same woman?!

    (Yes, I know, I too, like dear Harriet, need to get out more!)

  8. Becky says

    Wierd. I never thought about that. Well, I never paid much attention to her to begin with.