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By (September 1, 2008) No Comment

By Catherine Coulter
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2008

The first sentences of Catherine Coulter’s new book, TailSpin, made me despair—“She thought she swallowed because her throat burned hot, as if splashed with sharp acid, but she wasn’t sure because she couldn’t think clearly. Her mind felt dark, as heavy and thick as chains, and she knew to her soul that there was violence just beyond it.” It wasn’t the thought of the heroine’s distress that depressed me, but the awkward use of the word “she” four times in one sentence….and the acid cliché. Her mind feels like chains? What was kind of dreck was I about to spend my afternoon wading through?

This shaky beginning does prepare the reader for the clumsy writing that plagues the story, but, happily, Coulter’s talents for plotting, pacing, and action sequences make this light mystery a perfectly suitable beach read. Imagine watching back-to-back episodes of Law and Order, and you’ll have captured the experience of reading this novel. Two separate plots keep Coulter’s three FBI agents, Agent Jackson Crowne, Agent Savich, and Agent Sherlock, adequately busy. In one plot, a young woman, Rachael Janes Abbott (she of the chain-link mind), finds out that she is the illegitimate daughter of a senior Senator six weeks before he dies in a suspicious car accident—as she grieves the father she might have known, Rachael suddenly becomes a target for unknown reasons. She survives several murder attempts as she and Jack Crowne seek out her would-be killers. The other plot focuses on Dr. Timothy MacLean, a psychiatrist to the Washington elite, who comes down with frontal lobe dementia and begins spilling his powerful patients’ secrets. Once he starts blabbing, he begins to suffer from with multiple assassination attempts as well.

The titular tail spin is the event that brings these two plotlines and three federal officers into close conjunction. Since Rachael Abbott (fleeing from her attackers) happens to witness Jack Crowne’s and Dr. MacLean’s plane crashing onto a small land strip in the mountains near Parlow, Kentucky, she stops to pull them from the wreckage. This coincidence also activates the little romance subplot between Jack and Rachael: “To her surprise, he actually smiled. ‘Am I dead? Are you an angel? No, you’re not an angel, your hair’s too pretty and that braid—angels don’t wear braids like that. And you’ve got dirt on your nose.” If that last quote didn’t make you gag, you might really enjoy the rest of Coulter’s dialogue.

The plane crash is just the beginning of the action, and that sentence only represents one of the many references to Rachael’s braid. Never in my life have I read so many descriptions of one braid—it is the one feature that every character consistently notices about Rachael. I suppose this tonsorial fillip is meant to designate Rachael as a sexy heroine, but the description recurs so often that I debated whether or not if the all-important braid was a running joke. Unfortunately, I don’t think so. Not all of Coulter’s characters are quite as two-dimensional as Rachael, and I suspect that Jack, Savich, and Sherlock have somewhat more defined personalities because this is the twelfth book in Coulter’s FBI series. As in Law and Order (I cannot emphasize how appropriate this analogy is), the main characters develop quirks and backgrounds from episode to episode, and the guest stars typically remain cookie-cutter portraits of victims, villains, informants, and bystanders. Still, Coulter’s main characters aren’t particularly interesting either.

I cannot judge how charming the married FBI agents Savich and Sherlock are in the other books in Coulter’s series, but I had trouble believing that the FBI would ever allow a married couple to work as partners. I know that suspending disbelief is a requirement of reading pulp fiction, but when the icy villain insults the agents by commenting, “Married? I’ve never heard of FBI agents begin married to each other before, but I suppose our government allows just about anything,” I was glad that someone questioned the ridiculous premise. To be fair, most of the partners in cop shows behave somewhat like married couples anyway—with only the partner understanding the other’s true nature—and so Coulter just makes this subtext explicit. Nevertheless, her attempts to normalize this Savich/Sherlock coupling by inserting repetitive (and boring) scenes detailing their blissful Cheerio-strewn, child-rearing homelife are more than a little embarrassing. Heaven forbid that married feds (aka good guys) have any major complications at home due to their bizarre career choice.

Beating up a novel like this one because of the weakness of its writing, dialogue, and overly familiar characters, however, seems like a waste of time considering that it delivers relentless, driving action. I can’t help but believe that’s why most of Coulter’s devotees keep picking up these books, and Coulter does have a talent for writing fast-paced, exciting, bloody scuffles. At any moment, the reader knows that an assassin is going to run through the door or a bomb will detonate—the melodrama and dull dialogue don’t really have a chance to slow down the plot.

Although there are several good skirmishes scattered throughout the novel, my favorite comes when the Savich and Sherlock corner a hit woman, Perky, who has been terrorizing Rachael. Coulter sets the initial confrontation in a goth-lingerie boutique, which is only one of the clever locations that the author integrates into the plot. (My second favorite locale has got to be Parlow, Kentucky, a town that names all of its streets after various species of ducks.) Coulter shows a nice eye for the detail when she describes the store:

Once through the black front door at K-Martique, Sherlock, all smiles, nodded to the few customers as she wove her way through racks of gauzy black skirts, black dresses, black tops, some really interesting red plastic spikes, black boots, and lacy black underwear hot enough to sizzle a guy’s eyes, to the counter in the far corner. It was stationed in front of a full-length mirror, doubtless to allow the sales clerk visual cover of the store.

By mentioning the store’s safety mirror, Coulter approximates the overview a FBI agent might take when entering a dangerous location—plus, these little touches make the subsequent chase scene easier to follow because the reader already has a firm understanding of the setting. Savich and Sherlock follow an Elvira-like clerk to the apartment upstairs, and she unexpectedly turns on them:

They were all the way in the small, shadowy space when the door slammed shut behind them and they heard the key turn in the lock, the wild, fast flap of boots back down the stairs. Savich kicked the door open and bending low, eased out into the small hallway. If he hadn’t been nearly bent double, he would have been shot in the chest. The bullet whizzed over his head, barely missing him. He fell flat on the hallway floor and fired. Two more bullets slammed into the wall above his head, and then he heard the sound of running. Sherlock came down beside him, “You’re okay, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, just humiliated.”

‘Well,” she said, “I think we just met Perky.”

They run downstairs, through the boutique, but Perky decides to rush into a Barnes & Noble full of hostages, which leads to the most suspenseful moment of the book:

Savich saw her shoot…from behind the travel aisle, then leap onto the down escalator from the second level and begin to run up, flat out, her black skirt flying, her boots thudding loudly on the treads, a gun in her right hand. He knew to his gut she was heading to the third floor, the children’s section, to find herself the perfect hostage. Of course she could grab anyone. He called, “Sherlock, get everyone over here. Steve, buzz up to the children’s area. Get the kids on the elevator, fast, or in the restrooms, just out of sight. Everyone, stay down!

Coulter transforms a comfortable neighborhood bookstore into a site for a potential massacre, and she never loses the reader while describing the complicated moves of the players. The agents dodge bullets by ducking behind bookcases, and the escalator causes the killer’s (literal) downfall. Throughout the novel, showers of bullets often erupt in unlikely places and in the middle of peaceful interludes, and this havoc propels the melodramatic plot(s) forward. Sadly, the twin mysteries culminate rather obviously—it’s as if Coulter doesn’t quite believe in red herrings or misleading the reader—but the fun shoot ‘em ups almost make up for the unsurprising ending.

Sharon Fulton is a PhD candidate in English literature at Columbia University. She is working on a dissertation about the role of animals in the literary dream-visions of the late fourteenth-century.

On to #9, The Beach House by Jane Green