Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Review: The Devil's Elixir

In Raymond Khoury's world, everyone is stupid.

I don't mean something simple, like forgetfulness or density, cultural difference or sexist cluelessness.  I mean fundamental stupidity, such as, "I am an FBI agent but I won't worry about those two suspicious-looking thugs that just walked into the museum behind the person I'm guarding."

The only thing worse than the stupidity is the cleverness: people who can set up undetectable ruses using elaborate plans that either involve or hornswoggle high-ranking individuals.

Remind me to be written by Khoury.

The novelist continues his relationship with the FBI in The Devil's Elixir, starting with a visit to San Diego. Former federal worker Michelle has her quiet Saturday interrupted by a gaggle of assassins.  She jumps in the car and calls Sean Reilly, a man she hasn't spoken to in five years, a former associate from whom she has kept a secret.  Sean himself kept more than a few secrets himself from her (which helps explain why they hadn't spoken in so long).

Reilly races to the rescue, only not be not so much the hero as the guy batting clean-up. As only Reilly can, he assumes this situation has something to do with him (because what doesn't?). Although he and Michelle both were in Mexico five years ago, both annoyed powerful drug dealers and both had demons from that time... Reilly considers himself the only plausible target.

Khoury revives a few familiar faces in this book, such as Tess Chaykin, one of the stupidest characters in modern fiction. I was amazed that she and Reilly managed to survive The Last Templar, despite her inability to do one smart thing for the better part of a week.  In this book, she redeems herself: Sean is the stupid one who refuses to listen to her and hurts himself leaping from one assumption to another.  For someone who values and respects Tess' opinions, he sure doesn't act like it in The Devil's Elixir.  We also meet other recurring characters, such as Munro, an FBI agent (and Sean's partner) whom I would trust only as far as I could throw him.

Khoury creates a new character: Raoul Navarro, who isn't Navarro but is.  (Stay with me here.) This Mexican is supposed to make Bill Sikes look like a Boy Scout. Just the mention of his name causes people to stand up straighter — and yet, I didn't feel it. As I read his exploits, cruelty and capabilities, I wasn't frightened —I just wondered how he would meet his end. He had "expendable crew member" written all over him.

The story is very complex, but the chapters and sentences are short and choppy, as if editors assume readers won't be able to see a clue if it's not its own paragraph.  That structure felt contrived and more than a little insulting.

There wasn't enough about the "exilir" in the story for my liking. I knew it was heady stuff and Navarro was all keen to get his hands on it for the world, but there wasn't enough about its effects to make me understand the attraction.  I suppose any highly addictive drug is enough of a draw for a drug lord, but this guy had a powerful, personal attraction to it, and I wanted to know why. Once that information was available, I wished I had gotten a personal tour in its effects — but instead, we skated past or through them, with vague descriptions for readers to try to figure out what the drug did.

Finally, the conspiracy: I felt cheated. There was a whopper of a conspiracy going on in this book, and the way it was revealed felt cheap. I would have preferred hints threaded throughout the story, but it was presented to me like a Jello salad: moulded into a pleasant shape, jiggly, fun to look at — but, when I finally bit into it, it dissolved to nothing.

Have you read it? Am I off-base? Tell me if you liked it, and we'll compare notes.

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