Alex Cross: Along Came a Spider – review

Along Came a Spider - Alex Cross 1

Along Came a Spider – Alex Cross 1

I try to diversify. No, really, I do. I make a genuine effort to try new things and not just read Stephen King over and over again until I bleed from the eyes. And more than that, I try not to hop-on-bandwagons and make fun of things I haven’t tried simply because I can. So with that in mind, I decided to give a go at reading Along Came a Spider, a crime-thriller and the first book in the Alex Cross series by James Patterson.

See it’s too easy to use James Patterson as the punchline of a joke lately in the literary community and sound snobbish and world-weary: “Something something Twilight, something Fifty Shades, something something James Patterson! Ha ha ha!” But I refuse to do that… until of course I’ve actually read it. That’s not saying I think you should read it: that sort of “let’s buy it to see if it’s really bad” is what got the aforementioned Fifty Shades about half the copies-sold it got.

So with that in mind, I decided to try out Along Came a Spider, the first book in the Alex Cross series.

Because we live in an Internet-age and it’s almost impossible nowadays to go into a book as a blank slate with no prior knowledge of it, I’ll try and some up my knowledge going in so that my biases and points-of-perspective are on the table.

I knew of James Patterson mostly via the hate that the literary community has slogged onto him recently because of his ethical authorship choices, mainly his book-deal in which he “co-authors” several dozen novels with lesser-known authors in order to flood the market with his brand-name while simultaneously given newer authors a chance to get recognized. This seems altruistic at first, until you read the fine print: there’s a clause in the contract stipulating that nobody — ever — is allowed to let it be known how much of the novel Patterson actually wrote. Meaning he could really just edit someone else’s manuscript, add a line here and there, and collect his fee. And many of his longtime readers assert that he has done just that, owing to dramatic shifts in quality and prose-style in these later volumes.

And yeah, I see that as kinda shady.

I have nothing against collaborative fiction: my experiences writing the Infinity series would make me a hypocrite if I did, but there’s something to be said for transparency. The fact that there’s a clause hiding this detail makes me wonder: what is there to hide?

I’m also tangentially aware of Patterson’s other series, The Women’s Murder Club, a premise I find wholly offensive. It’s mainly known as “those books with the big numbers on them” and exists under the premise that women from different corners of law-enforcement get together as a sort of secret-club to fight crime. That premise feels like it was lifted out of Charlie’s Angels, or some other pre-sexual revolution-era fiction, wherein the hook is “girls solving crimes! Wow!”

Yeah, women can solve crimes just as easily and with the same amount of efficiency as men can. That isn’t a selling point. And it forms this weird mobius-loop of criticism, wherein you want it to be good to further female leads in that sort of crime-fighting leading-character role, but the fact that this is billed as the main hook and title of the series insures that it most advance the branch of feminism in literature, but hold it back.

And here we get to Along Came a Spider, which introduces us to Alex Cross: a tough-as-nails black detective. That’s the hook of this series: he’s a detective who lives in the ghettos because that’s where he grew up, and even though he could move now he stays there and looks after his family and feels close to his roots. He knows how things really are on the streets, solves crimes against the little guy that Big Brother won’t report on, but is so good at his job that he gets called to work on a high-profile case involving a kidnapping at a private school.

Just so we’re clear, of Patterson’s two main series’, the hook of one is “they’re girls… and they solve crimes!” and the hook of the other is “he’s African-American… and he solves crimes!” Again, it’s one of those instances of someone trying to NOT be ethnocentric that ends up coming off as VERY ethnocentric. An African man as the lead in a thriller (and not in the role of the first-one-killed trope) is a good thing, but the fact that Patterson was like: “hey, imagine a world where this could happen” is a BAD thing.

Furthermore, it’s said a lot that Patterson really doesn’t ‘get’ the ethnicity he’s working from, and that the dialog really sounds like a white-person’s version of the dialog said by African-American’s when nobody is looking. I agree, but I’m not going to comment too much, as I’m not qualified to. I haven’t had that experience, and I can’t say I’d have done better than Patterson there. The point is though: I wouldn’t have tried, and I certainly wouldn’t have made it the main hook for a series.

The kidnapping plot focuses around the children of a senator and a movie star being kidnapped by a man who seems to want to model himself after the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping: ie: a kidnapping that is never solved. He’s planned what, he thinks, is the perfect crime, one that will make sure he’s known forever even after he’s caught, and that the kids are never found.

The issue is that one of them is found, dead. Alex Cross is called in off a serial-killer case he’s been on (where the killer targets mainly African women. Subtle.) and is placed on the kidnapping case, working alongside Jezzie Flannigan, an FBI agent also assigned to the case.

The case in long. The story takes place over month, and Alex and Jezzie eventually start a relationship. Events are slowed to a snail’s pace, and it’s hard to understand what’s happening, until the kidnapper is eventually found: but not the other missing child. It’s been so long though, that the child is assumed dead.

It’s here that the book takes a long, long, long digression out to deal with Cross and Jezzie as a couple,  which would be good if Patterson was at all competent at writing them as-such. Spoilers: he isn’t. This goes on and on, with nothing new happening on the case, and you begin to wonder… shouldn’t this be over? It’s like sitting through all the endings of The Return of the King: just end already. Then, out of nowhere, we learn that Jezzie has actually been playing Alex all along! The kidnapping was actually solved rather quickly, and she (and a few other corrupt FBI agents) solved the case but kept the child for themselves to get the ransom money. Jezzie is stopped and the child is found, alive, and returned to her family.

The pacing is horrible, some of the worst I’ve ever seen in published literature. Worse yet is the serious, serious racial insensitivity and ethnocentrism at play here. Every black person is played as a “Magical Negro” that somehow has hidden knowledge, like a genie just waiting to be asked a question. And they’re written as having this knowledge because of their “down to earth” status, glorifying the ghetto that Cross lives in. Is there some reason he couldn’t have just been a regular cop who happened to be black? Did we really need all this stereotyping? Because I hate to tell you Patterson, racial profiling — even when it profiles the person in a positive light — is still racial profiling. Black people are not some magical oracle that you can rub the right way into giving to mystical secret truths a la Uncle Remas or Bagger Vance. Or maybe they are, what do I know.

Also sidenote: the thing about genies? They wear chains and have to do as we tell them. Think about it.

Not only is Cross a magical figure for the police, but his mother is a magical figure for him, playing up the “wise old black woman” stereotype for all it’s worth. To add more onto this pile of offensive garbage, the twist of Jezzie being a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing is more than a little sexist in how it’s portrayed: it reads like a justification of Original Sin here, with the poor good man being tricked by that conniving, no-good woman who seduced him with her sexual wiles and apples and such. Jezzie is even short for Jezabel, which is as close as you’ll get to foreshadowing by the way. The revelation of Jezzie’s duplicity comes out of nowhere and leaves just as quickly.

I could forgive some of the rampant ethnocentrism if it was at least competently written, but it isn’t. It’s bland, boring, and vanilla. It’s uninteresting.

The worst part? Patterson apologists claim that they can tell his newer books aren’t written by him because of the “drop in quality.” *shudders*

Along Came a Spider (Alex Cross, #1)Along Came a Spider by James Patterson
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

The worst part? Patterson apologists claim that they can tell his newer books aren’t written by him because of the “drop in quality.” *shudders*

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