I first took notice of Andrew Klavan last year when he wrote a jaw-droppingly devastating essay for City Journal called “The Big White Lie,” about the obvious logical failures of liberalism. After that, I checked out some of his mystery novels from the library, and was suitably entertained. More recently, his City Journal essay “Story Time,” which illustrates what the loss of fatherhood has done to the young of our country, also had me cheering.
So when I heard he had a new novel out, and that it was a scathing indictment of pop-America’s shallow political understanding to boot, I immediately got a copy. Like Robert Ferrigno’s Sins of the Assassin, it’s about Islamic terrorism and has a basically conservative agenda (a subcategory of the mystery genre at which I’ve also tried my hand). Also like Sins, it has some pretty consistent foul language, though not nearly to the extent that Ferrigno’s novel had. Still, it’s probably a bit over the top (Klavan is most likely trying to impress us with how “gritty and gripping” his vision is), and the reader should be warned.
Klavan no doubt had his City Journal essays in mind as he wrote the novel, which makes a big deal out of both the left’s poor grasp of reality and the consequences of fatherlessness. The plot is nothing earth-shattering, and handled predictably. One gets the idea that the story here is secondary, a mere vehicle for Klavan’s pontificating.
Not that that’s always a bad thing. It’s refreshing to read an unabashedly conservative work of fiction (I suppose mean-spirited critics could contend that all conservative works might as well be fiction, but I digress).
Klavan wants us to see the many conflicting sides of his narrator, who comes across realistically and originally enough. Still, as much as Klavan wants to play a hard-boiled psychologist, I couldn’t help comparing him to the mystery master under whom he seems to have apprenticed, John D. MacDonald, and MacDonald’s running protagonist, Travis McGee. When Klavan’s hero, everyman Jason Harrow, is being tough, he’s still not as tough as McGee, and when he shows us his vulnerable side, he’s not nearly as sensitive as McGee. By the way, if you’ve never read MacDonald, stop wasting your time perusing my blog and read The Lonely Silver Rain. Seriously.
Klavan’s title, Empire of Lies, refers to a minor character’s summary of the decrepit state of the American media’s information gathering and use, especially as it pertains to politics. Interestingly, the same thing happens in Michael Crichton’s 2005 State of Fear: a minor character uses the title in a tirade that conveys the author’s primary theme, perhaps too bluntly, and that is meant to illuminate the protagonist who listens. You’ll notice that the two titles are even virtually synonymous.
Also like State of Fear, there’s another supporting character who is clearly based on a real celebrity. In Crichton’s novel, it was a pompous leftist actor who was then “playing the president of the United States on television,” a la Martin Sheen, and who meets a viciously unsavory fate due to his own skewed perception of the world. Klavan’s caricature isn’t nearly as hostile, and is far more humorous. Klavan’s character, Patrick Piersall, used to play the leader of a spaceship on a 60’s TV show, then became a fat drunk with a bad hairpiece, then hosted a cheesy real-crime show, and finally stars as an attorney on a “cutting-edge” TV drama. Yes, folks, Klavan’s novel mocks a mirror image of good old William Shatner.
The parallel goes further than that, though. Any good nerd knows that Captain Kirk’s middle name was Tiberius. Klavan’s character, Piersall, played a starship leader named Augustus Kane. Nothing makes a good joke like an allusion to another Caesar, right, Mr. Klavan? (Incidentally, nobody else seems to have written about this. Before drafting this post, I googled “Andrew Klavan Empire of Lies William Shatner,” and only got results for bookstores that carried books by both Klavan and Shatner. It doesn’t speak well of America’s geeks if this book has been out for two months and I spotted this first. Please, please tell me that somebody else has pointed this out.)
So is it any good? Yes, it’s worth reading, if you’re looking to have your conservative worldview reinforced without too much depth, or if you want to kill a weekend with a friendly workhorse of a thriller that won’t surprise you too much. Don’t take that too harshly, though: Klavan is very skilled at introducing a twist at the end of a chapter so that you just have to start the next one. It does make it easier to swallow. And I have to admit, it’s fun seeing all those anti-PC ideas I read about in op-eds put into action in a fictional setting that makes them exciting and crucial to beating the bad guy. Yeah!
But, since I’m thinking about them now, I might do you a better favor if I recommended any of MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels or Crichton’s State of Fear (Crichton gets pegged as a science-fiction writer–he is, after all, the guy who wrote Jurassic Park–but I think his real love lies with mystery; remember Rising Sun? Man, that book just burned white hot from cover to cover). Yes, I’d recommend any of those…or Klavan’s excellent City Journal essays.
Oh, and those of you who really haven’t ever read MacDonald and who are still reading this…dude, what gives? What did you not understand at the end of paragraph five? Listen: The Lonely Silver Rain. Do it. Now.
Final Grade: B-