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Recently scurrying through Wellington Airport I was accosted by a 7-foot blow-up of Crime Writer James Patterson on the side of a bookshop wall. Appropriate, I thought, given he’s a master of the airport thriller.
He’s a prolific writer and has producer numerous bestsellers including Along Came a Spider and Kiss the Girls. His online bibliography boasts 135 separate items. He’s largely known for the series about crime-fighting psychologist Alex Cross and he’s done the ‘Michael Bennett’, ‘Women’s Murder Club’, ‘Maximum Ride’, ‘Daniel X’, and Witch and Wizard books, as well as many stand-alone thrillers, non-fiction and romance novels. I learned that he’s sold more than 300 million copies and holds the Guinness World Record for being the first person to sell 1 million e-books. Phew! He is more recently known as somebody who collaborates freely with other authors.
The Thomas Berryman Number is his first novel, originally published in 1976 and now re-released in a new edition. Thomas Berryman is a hit man, a ‘Number’ being his code name for a cold, calculated assassination. The book opens with three horrific murders in the South. Cool, calm, collected; Berryman researches his targets. In one case, he even enjoys reading their published biographies.
The story is directed loosely through the journal entries of a small town journalist who’s researching the killing of a high profile Southern politician, senate hopeful Jimmie Lee Horn. It alternates between the lens of Ochs Jones and the slithering, shadow of Berryman himself. I found the crisscrossing flashbacks somewhat diminished the immediacy and created some confusion at times.
Patterson writes at speed, his prose is quick, but somehow this plot just seems to crawl. It’s set in the Southern States of 1960’s America but is sparse on atmosphere and reference points. Unexpected reminders pop up here and there – descriptions of cars, recent events, radio shows or clothing. Yet none are truly unique to the time and I found it hard to put my head in that space. Of course, given it was written before 1976, when the story was written it was probably contemporary, but this is a failure of editing even if so. The trail of evidence presented by Jones is difficult to follow, and the essence of a suspense thriller – the ability to work out your own conclusions – seems to me to be missing.
Given his legacy of speed to resolution, I was left wanting. If this was a library book, I would have returned it unfinished. For me, my only commitment to finish was so I could write this review. The concluding chapters were more of a relief than further suspense. As you can tell, this is not the novel I was hoping for.
But, in contemplation, it is another style for Patterson, and from a different time. Researching this one I saw many views and reviews. The camps are divided. Some want an Alex Cross prototype, others forgive his experimental approach, acknowledging the clear parallels between this and the drier literature of American novel like Catcher in the Rye and To Kill A Mockingbird. As a modern reader, in a fast-paced world, with a short media attention span, these, and this book require patience. It’s certainly a document to a very successful career. And, like Elvis, 50,000,000 fans can’t be wrong. But that is with regards his later work. On this, his first book? Well, you be the judge of that.
Reviewed by Tim Gruar
The Thomas Berryman Number
by James Patterson
Published by Century