By Sandra Brown
When the reign of the Antichrist (or Kindle?) begins, books will adjust their text to the intelligence of the individual reader. Pick up a copy of Pride and Prejudice at your local Babylon & Noble and you’ll find that when placed in front of your ten-year-old it begins, “The single women in this book would like to marry someone rich. Still with me?” For the slightly more advanced reader: “People in early-1800s England assume that rich single men should get married.” If the book thinks you’re up for it: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Placed in front of your dog, the book reveals a hologram of Keira Knightley that tells him what a good puppy he is.
Mayan prophecies assure us that the Antichrist isn’t scheduled to appear until 2012, but until then we have Sandra Brown. Her latest bestseller, Smash Cut, has a peculiar ability to tailor its difficulty to the reader at hand. The more I thought about its two good guys, Derek and Julie, the more convinced I became that at least one must be secretly villainous. Julie knows midway through the novel exactly what the killer’s thoughts and future misdeeds will be. Fishy, right? Derek’s wildly inconsistent internal monologues about whether he can trust Julie (either she’s the perfect woman or she’s an evil slut) seem not unlike the psychoses of a sociopath. Yet it turns out that both are every bit as innocent as Brown leads us to believe, and that the true villain is exactly the one announced on the book jacket. See, for the overly analytical, Smash Cut turns into a mystery as well as a thriller! Think a little less hard, and it smoothes out into an easy pattern of alternating sex and crime scenes.
As everything about the dust jacket suggests (the book’s dictionary-of-cinematography title, the insistence on calling the characters “principals” and the plot a “storyboard), Smash Cut aspires to witty meta-commentary on the many, and muddled, kinds of fiction that populate the age of multimedia. We have a fictional killer struggling to acquire ontological clarity by introducing into the plot imitations of other art forms, which is to say elements two levels further from reality than he, since these instances of artifice make him feel “real” by comparison… Wait, this is the way the apocalyptic edition of Smash Cut will conform for me.
Everyone in this edition of Smash Cut announces to everyone else, ad nauseam, that the creepy Creighton Wheeler is a film “scholar,” absolutely “obsessed” with movies. In one of the rare moments when the world of Smash Cut actually resembles the planet I inhabit, he flies into a rage when his mom scratches one of his DVDs. Then it’s back to Planet Brown, where cinephile murderers prove their chops by quoting from Forrest Gump, Love Actually, and Casablanca, to say nothing of the multitude of thrillers that have provided Brown with such a serviceable storyboard:
Anyone who’d ever seen a scary movie knew that the slut always died. The body count of bad girls considerably outweighed that of their virtuous counterparts. Jamie Lee Curtis’s promiscuous friend in Halloween. Diane Keaton in Looking for Mr. Goodbar. The list was endless.
Julie knows that Creighton likes Hitchcock and that he was playing tennis the afternoon that his uncle Paul was killed by a hit man named Billy Duke. From this she deduces (absolutely correctly) that he’s arranged a murder swap with Duke, à la Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. In Strangers on a Train, a tennis player has his wife killed and is then expected to bump off the murderer’s father. The brilliant Julie spots a parallel that still escapes me and proceeds to screen Strangers on a Train for Derek and the rest of the good guys, insisting that the movie indicates that Creighton will kill Duke’s ex-girlfriend, since the rich psycho in Strangers on a Train kills the other man’s…father. If I were Derek, I wouldn’t buy Julie’s hypothesis about Strangers in a Train, and if I did, then I’d race to check on Duke’s father, not his ex. If I were Derek, though, that girl would be dead.
On Sandra Brown’s website, you can find answers to all the questions you must be frequently asking yourself by now, like “Why do you only write one book a year?” and “Why haven’t more of your books been made into movies?” To the former, Brown responds that each book requires extensive character development and research. To the latter, she responds that while many have been optioned for feature films or television, these things take time. But we all know she’s being modest: the real hurdle is that Brown is in love with free indirect style, and uses it to such, er, singular effect as to make her style virtually untranslatable into any medium other than a Sandra Brown novel. She loves the thoughts of the working man (the sympathetic assassin Duke), with his dreams of “a coupla thou” and things that are “swank.” Yet she seems unsure of how the Sandra Brown-reading Everyman actually makes decisions or performs sequential actions, so she abandons his head whenever he’s actually doing anything. She also loves switching from one head to another during the sex scenes, though Julie and Derek have surprisingly similar penchants for words like “amorous” and “sexual congress” (maybe this is what makes their romance so passionate – what are the chances that someone who likes the term “sexual congress” has ever met a like-minded individual?)
How all this mind-hopping congress would work on the big screen is beyond my sub-Julie powers of divination, but then it’s hard to imagine Smash Cut and Brown achieving the enormous popularity they have. She has a charmingly self-deprecating greeting on her website that seems at odds with the studio-option ambitions she has for this book: it begins, “Whether you are a devoted Sandra Brown reader – and I hope you are! – or you’ve stumbled across this page accidentally while searching for another Sandra Brown…,” implying that a significant fraction of her success is due to fortuitous mistake. What with fifty million books sold, and the Fates and the search engines solidly in her corner, I don’t feel terrible advising against reading this book. There’ll be plenty of time in the End Times for books just like it.
Laura Kolbe has written for the Harvard Book Review and the Oxonian Review. She lives in New York City.
On to #9, The Eleventh Victim, by Nancy Grace