James Schmerer,
Twisted Shadows
(Writers Club, 2000)

James Schmerer has been involved in the television and film industries, working in the story end of things. I would have thought that such experience would translate more naturally to successful fiction, but reading several efforts by people with similar resumes has convinced me it does not. An interview with George R.R. Martin in Locus explained part of the reason: scripts need to be very tightly written, with never a wasted word; atmosphere, expressiveness, mood and all the other intangibles are provided by people other than the author. In novels, of course, we rely on the author to provide all this. Making the transition from terse scripting to the relatively verbose novel is obviously more difficult than it sounds.

Schmerer has not succeeded in effectively making this transition. While Twisted Shadows could have been a reasonably successful script, it's not an effective novel. The scriptwriters' terseness is largely to blame for this, I think. Nothing in the book is described sufficiently to evoke it in the imagination, and many things -- most especially the behaviors and reactions of the main characters -- are inexplicable without the humanizing effect of actors making them breathe.

I realize that a flawed hero is one of the conventions of noirish fiction. Lou Parker, Schmerer's protagonist, isn't merely flawed, though; he's positively unlikable. Drunk, selfish and consistently unpleasant to be around, he'd need a fairly charismatic actor in the role to graduate to flawed hero status, and since there's no such person in the novel he remains a boor. His loutishness makes his scripted attractiveness to women entirely unbelievable. What's to like? In particular his relationship with the woman who tries to be his partner and who he treats with contemptuous disregard is ludicrous. She's supposedly a strong yet vulnerable modern woman, yet falls for this oaf who lies to her, sneaks around after he's sworn to cooperate with her, and is old enough to be her father -- quite literally, since she was previously involved with his murdered son.

Betrayals are another convention of noir ... perhaps the defining one. Twisted Shadows has a full complement. Without giving away any of the details, I didn't find them very interesting. While I wasn't expecting them, exactly, I also wasn't surprised by them. Partly the characters aren't realized sufficiently to enable one to care whether they are or are not betrayed; partly the inevitability of betrayal at a crisis point is so much a part of the style that unless distracted one expects it -- and Schmerer offers nothing to distract his readers. Nonetheless, the plot was adequate; it's the dearth of atmosphere and characterizations that made the book so lacking.

I really can't recommend this book to anyone, although it could be turned into a competent script for a movie or TV show with little effort. If Schmerer wants to write novels, however, he'd be well advised to learn how to evoke character and atmosphere in words, since there are no actors or production staff to provide them in a novel. He might also consider writing something closer to what he knows from his own life -- perhaps basing a plot in the world of TV or film would be easier for him than evoking a world as foreign to his own life as a New York City police department.

[ by Amanda Fisher ]

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