February 26, 2008

Mini-review: "Matala," by Craig Holden

(CCLaP publishes mini-reviews of both books and movies on a regular basis, none lasting more than a few hundred words. Click here for the full list.)

Matala, by Craig Holden
Matala (book; 2007)
By Craig Holden
Simon and Schuster / ISBN: 978-0-7432-7499-9

As I've said here before, I'm a fan of sometimes picking up and going through just completely random books, found through completely random means, for two main reasons: professionally, because it keeps the list of books reviewed here at CCLaP closer to the list of books available in most readers' lives; and then personally just because I'm a heavy reader myself, have been since a small child in fact, and sometimes tear through random titles just because I'm bored and can't find anything else to read. And thus do we come to the 2007 Eurothriller Matala by Craig Holden, which a few weeks ago I came across completely by accident in the "new books" section at my neighborhood library, and checked out completely on a whim; and indeed, it's not a horrible book at all nor ultimately was it a waste of my time, although it can definitely be called a textbook example of a type of novel I talk about here sometimes, that "book to read when you're stuck at a relative's and you forgot to bring a book yourself." So in other words, if you're looking to kill a day or two over Easter in your slightly creepy great-aunt's place, and you're staring at a wall full of dusty Zane Gray titles and Readers Digest compilations, if you were to come across Matala (which you very well might under such circumstances) it would undoubtedly be the very best book on that wall. That's not saying a lot, but at least it's saying something.

Set in a pre-EU 1987 for no discernible reason I could see, the novel is essentially a noir -- the tale of spoiled and bored high-school graduate / new undergraduate Darcy Arlen, traipsing across Europe over Christmas vacation on a parents-sponsored guided field trip, yearning for adventure but unable to figure out how to break free of her group and have some. Enter, then, emaciated badboy Will, with whom Darcy starts up a random conversation one evening on a Rome bridge; as you can guess, in reality he's a charming low-level con artist and pill freak, who was just about to hit rock-bottom before meeting the cash-flushed Darcy and literally charming the pants off her. And thus does he convince her to sneak out later and join him at the rock-and-roll slacker hostel where he's staying; and thus does she meet Will's much older femme-fatale partner in crime, Justine; and thus do the two of them convince Darcy to simply split off from the guided tour group, since she's over eighteen now and can do what she wants, and instead go on a trip with the two of them to move a mysterious package through pre-war Yugoslavia and eventually to the small Grecian town of Matala. And thus do things start going from bad to worse as they make their way eastward, and eventually from worse to "relentlessly violent Oscar-winning Coen Brothers adaptation."

As you can see, in fact, predictability is the biggest problem with Matala; because the writing itself is just fine (or at least serviceable), just that the storyline feels like a framework that never got filled in. This is what elevates certain genre work to the top of the heap, after all, that since all of them are ultimately based on the same tiny amount of similar plots, such details as character-fleshing and McGuffin-nuancing is really what separates a great one from a "meh" one; and Matala is a "meh" novel to be sure, one that feels like a sculpture an artist worked on just long enough to reveal a general shape, but not long enough for us to recognize who it's actually supposed to be. Now in all fairness, Holden does try to shake things up from the usual noirish plot on display here, but even his exceptions somehow feel like typical genre rules when all is said and done; the "innocent dupe" who isn't quite so innocent, the Oedipal connection between the con-artist lovers that fairly broadcasts itself from the very beginning.

And then of course are the times when common sense takes a backseat because it would ruin something in the clunky storyline being developed, as sure a sign of an immature writer as anything; for example, the fact that the private investigator hired by Darcy's parents knows full-well what horrific fate awaits her once she gets to Matala, yet refuses to flat-out just tell her during their phone calls in fear of "ruining the surprise" for us as readers. That's the kind of basic "Plotting 101" mistake that relegates such novels to the Zane Gray Readers Digest Creepy Great Aunt Back Bedroom Bookshelf in the first place, one of many such mistakes on display here. Do yourself a favor next Christmas and simply don't forget the book you're currently reading, when you head off to family holiday; if you do, though, you could do worse than to stumble across one of Holden's many genre thrillers on a musty basement bookshelf.

Out of 10: 6.8

And P.S., because it's worth mentioning, this is a great cover design in my opinion by Jaime Putorti, who's received lots of online praise in the past for other book covers. I wish all genre thrillers looked this sharp!

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:04 AM, February 26, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |