Step on a Crack

On a cruise ship books can make the rounds, passing from one reader to another fairly quickly. Two others in my group read Step On a Crack by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge before I did. They both agreed that the book was not very good (to paraphrase their summaries as gently as possible), so it’s fair to say that my expectations were low when I picked up the book.

My expectations were met. Had I something else to read, I would have put this thing down around chapter four and never looked back. (The chapters are very short). The first sentence is a confused and awkward bit of imagery (the back of a jacket turns away…) and that sets the tone for the whole book. We start with a murder, the untimely demise of one of the finest people the world has ever known. Her highly-trained bodyguards, who have been protecting her for several years now, are apparently unable to respond to what should be a routine medical emergency. It seems no one told them that their charge was deathly allergic to peanuts so they weren’t able to do anything about it. Oops! (The bad guy knew about her allergy, however, well enough to execute a months-long plot to infiltrate a fancy restaurant in order to put peanut oil on her dinner. Wow.) On top of that, somehow on this particular night the woman forgot to pack her own medicine. And so begins the work of the greatest criminal mastermind of the century.

But wait! Before we go any further with tales of murder and mayhem, it’s time to meet a whole bunch of Perfect People. These people do nothing to influence the plot of the story; they’re too busy being perfect. Perfect children. A perfect stranger to take perfect care of the perfect children in the time of crisis. Perfect people everywhere, doing the perfect things with perfect consistency. Bleeargh. Did I mention they have nothing to do with the plot? They are there, in fact, to perfectly NOT encumber the detective we will be following as the threadbare story develops.

Begin the crime of the century. A crime so big and so audacious it must be the work of a criminal genius. How do we know? Because the authors tell us so. With exclamation points! And occasional nonsensical italics! The NYPD is starting to look like a bunch of incompetent fools, and the press is going to have a field day. If hostages are killed, the press will rake our hero over the coals.

Only, hostages die, and for a long time it looks like the bad guys are winning, but the authors can’t be bothered to portray the actual coal-raking. In fact, the stakes for the good guys never escalate. There is no heat. (One reporter does criticize our hero in her paper, but then immediately expresses remorse and stops her persecution — taking her own step toward perfection before she can cause too much trouble for the authors.)

Then there’s the time the detective walks in and finds his grandfather dressed as a priest! (That’s their exclamation point, not mine.) Wow! what a shock! Only, it turns out that Grandpa has been a priest for years, everyone knows it, and seeing him dressed that way was no shock to anyone. The authors were just yanking our chain a bit. Whee.

Meanwhile, most of the hostages experience life-changing revelations. The perfect hostages become perfecter(!). The imperfect ones get better! For instance, the ‘fashionista’ resolves to go to rehab and stop being such a bitch all the time. Once she makes that decision, that’s it for her in this story. She makes a promise to herself to undergo a complete personality realignment and we believe her and move on. Well, the authors seem to believe her. I’m skeptical.

I hate to spoil it for you, but the good guys win in the end. In fact, they don’t have to work very hard to defeat the brilliant criminal mastermind. Sure, the bad guys got away at first, but just a little routine investigating and bam, there you have it. To avoid the authors having to get too clever, the criminals conveniently explain all the loose ends for us.

I finished the book. It didn’t take long; the type is big and there’s about fifty pages worth of blank space between chapters. One-third of what is left is a sentimental parade of sap that does nothing for the story. I set the book aside and decided not to review it here. There’s plenty of awful prose out there; you don’t need my help finding it. Then I read the back cover. “THE STUNNING #1 BESTSELLER” it says right across the top. Then it lists several newspapers who listed the book as a top-seller. What!?! This book?

I’m stunned, anyway. I decided to write a little review after all, not so much to criticize the book as the system that allowed it to attain such stature.

Usually, even with books or authors I don’t like, I can understand at least to a certain degree how they became successful. Dan Brown’s not very good but he has excellent pacing and managed to anger the right people. This book leaves me baffled.

Some guy at Booklist says, “Totally gripping and downright impossible to put down.” Gripping? No. No it isn’t. The characters are boring, there is no escalation of the stakes (unforgivable in a thriller), no character growth, not a breath of humanity anywhere to be found in these pages. The criminal plot depends on the incompetence of the good guys. Potentially gut-wrenching scenes are glossed over so we can get back to the Perfect People for another dose of sentimentality. Not gripping. USA Today chimes in as well, along with Publisher’s Weekly and a handful of book-review Web sites. Did they read a different version? One without so much suck in it? Are these people even literate?

Don’t waste your time with this book. In fact, just to be on the safe side, stay away from Patterson entirely until he proves this was just a fluke. Probably best to stay away from books published by Little, Brown, and Company (responsible for the hardcover version of this fluff) or by Vision. Somewhere there is an editor who approved this book, and I want to make sure I never encounter anything else that crossed her desk. As long as we’re learning from the mistakes of others, it’s time to take Booklist a lot less seriously as well.

The only explanation for the sales that I can come up with is the name: James Patterson. Apparently he’s pretty famous. Bookstores will pre-order a lot of copies, which drives the rankings up, which drives sales by people who won’t even read the first sentence of the story before taking it home. If it weren’t for the big name, not many people would have read the second sentence of this thing. The few that were carried through the first part by the suggestion of sex would have bailed out soon thereafter.

Is Mr. Patterson concerned about protecting his name? It doesn’t look like it. This book can’t be good for his reputation, no matter what the sales were. (I am assuming that at some point he wrote good books to establish his reputation.) He can read, I’d be willing to bet; he must know this novel is junk. Eventually, people are going to hesitate to pick up his next title, after getting insulted by a previous purchase.

Ooo! Or maybe — just maybe, mind you — Michael Ledwidge knows something. Something James Patterson would rather not become public. You see where I’m going with this? Ledwidge wrote the book but somehow coerced Patterson into putting his name on the thing as well. Farfetched? It’s a lot more plausible than the story in Step on a Crack.

And can someone tell me what that title had to do with anything?

Note: if for some reason you ignore my dire warnings and use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

15 thoughts on “Step on a Crack

  1. And that’s all the episodes I wrote while on the cruise and away from the Internet. I guess I’ll have to start coming up with new stuff now.

  2. The thing about Patterson is that when he writes a book by himself, it’s usually good — not great literature, but a generally enjoyable read. Inconsistencies arise, however, in books that he co-authors with someone else. I suspect that the co-authors do most of the work, and he might provide some guidance. (Otherwise, he’d have trouble writing something like 20 novels a year.)

    Some of his co-authors are pretty good; others can be downright awful — cheating on a routine basis by either bringing in all sorts of dei ex machinae or not revealing to the reader what the main characters know, or other flaws. On a couple of occasions, I’ve been tempted to burn the book.

    Maybe Michael Ledwidge does have something that he’s blackmailing Patterson with.

  3. The idea of farming out the writing of an established “franchise” isn’t new; it happens here and there in various genres. Witness as examples a bunch of Trekkie literature or Tom Clancy’s “Op Center” books. Perhaps it’s one of the easiest paths to a comfortable income in fiction writing; an established author can double or triple her income while only adding a little more workload and helping possibly promising writers into print. What a deal! That is, except for the readers, who only think they know what they’re getting for their money.

    • I know someone who wrote a Star Trek book. Kind of a drag not getting to put your name on your work, but in this case it helped her career along.

      But as with any other franchise, the name has to be protected. In the long term Patterson will lose if his name is on too many bad books. I don’t know about Op Center, but presumably there are editors in charge of the thing who strive to maintain some level of quality.

      • Yeah, that’s what I worry about with Patterson. Too many people will, like you, pick up something written by a lousy co-author and then condemn everything he has done. He really needs to work on quality control, either becoming more picky about co-authors or supervising the new ones more closely to make sure they’re up to standards — and ditching them if they aren’t.

        There was a time when I thought being a Patterson co-author might be a way for me to get launched as an author, since his co-authors’ names do go on the books (unlike Op Center), and he’s stated that he wants to help up-and-coming mystery and thriller writers. But since he’s lately had a slew of ghastly co-authors, I wouldn’t want to get lumped among them.

        • I think being a Patterson co-author would still be an excellent career boost. At least a lot of people would read your work. It’s up to Patterson to protect his own brand name, but if he were to dilute his brand and throw some of that mojo my way, I wouldn’t hesitate to take him up on it. If the writing is good, it will be no trouble getting the next gig without Patterson’s name on the cover.

          Hm… I started a thriller one naNoWriMo that definitely had more going for it than Step on a Crack. With work (and a machete), it might even be decent. I wonder how to reach Mr. Patterson…

  4. So… let me make sure I’m really understanding the foundation on which this entire story is built. A woman important enough to have bodyguards suffers from probably the most highly publicized life-threatening allergy in the world today, yet these bodyguards are unaware of the single most likely threat to her life, the life they are being paid to protect. She then leaves home without her epipen, an action roughly akin to you getting in a car and driving away without your glasses on; a thing that just simply… would… not… happen… EVER. And on the night that this thing that would not ever happen happens, she also just happened to go to the restaurant where the evil genius happened to have someone in place that night all set to slip peanut oil into her food.


    I… have to shut up now.

    • In fairness I have to say that the woman going to that restaurant on that day was traditional. Still it’s still a huge assumption on the part of the bad guys that the tradition won’t fall through this year.

      Other than that, you’re exactly right about the preposterosity of it all, especially since the woman in question was the former first lady of the United States. It’s hard to imagine that the Secret Service would not have known about her allergy, considering the White House kitchen would most certainly have had the no-peanut-oil edict drilled into them for at least four years.

      I didn’t bother listing all the holes in this part of the story; rest assured there are more.

      So, yeah. Wow.

      • Considering the whole nation knows about Barbara Bush’s thyroid condition (and Millie’s, too), and Malia Obama’s allergy to dogs, it would be inconceivable that a former First Lady’s peanut allergy wouldn’t be widespread knowledge. It’s not exactly believable that the Secret Service would be ignorant of something that the whole world knew about.

  5. Does anybody know if classics are exempt from best seller lists? All those high school students getting copies of “A Separate Peace” and “To Kill A Mockingbird” each year would have an impact otherwise, no?

    I read a Patterson novel a couple of years back about kids who were transformed into bird-beings. It wasn’t the worst book I ever read but…

  6. Just finished reading Sail, by Patterson and co-author Howard Roughan. It had a few spots that overdid the preposterousity, and a few annoying times when information is unfairly withheld from the reader, but overall, it was all right. At least one of the authors at least has a basic understanding of how sailboats work. I have never, however, seen a Hail Mary box kept in the cockpit where it would be conveniently blown into the water if the boat blew up. Usually it will be stowed more securely, such as in a lazarette.

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