My wife bought Andrew Klavan’s 2008 thriller Empire of Lies as one of my stocking stuffers for Christmas. Hey, it was a buck at the Dollar Tree.
I’d never read Klavan, but there was a great blurb on the book jacket by none other than Stephen King. I’d followed King’s recommendation of Meg Gardiner a few years back and enjoyed almost all of her work, so I dove into this new book with high expectations.
If I’ve learned one thing from this experience, it’s to never trust a Stephen King blurb again.
The novel follows Jason Harrow, a successful Midwestern developer, as he returns to New York to confront his sordid past, and uncovers a terrorist plot to bomb a major film opening. Racing against the clock, Harrow tries to prevent a disaster—and save the life of the daughter he never knew he had.
Sounds like a good setup, right? And it is. There should be a good novel in here somewhere. I keep looking for it and just not finding it.
There are some major flaws in this book, and one of them is the way Klavan deals with his main character’s core beliefs. He lets us know right up front that Harrow is a conservative Christian—and then he beats us with that club for the rest of the book.
If your story is second to your politics, you are not doing your job as a novelist. Period. I don’t care who you are or what you believe.
As a disclaimer here: I have nothing against conservatism, and I am a Christian, though I think it’s wrong that a political group has co-opted Jesus Christ as a symbol of something he never was.
My problems with Empire of Lies, however, begin with this: Harrow’s point of view leaves him brittle and unable to relate to other characters in the novel. And of course, his conservative values always see him through. He’s an unlikeable one-note character, and it’s hard to root for him throughout the book.
And what about his conservative values? Look, I’m really not one to argue politics. I think everyone is wrong—whether the Left or the Right. I don’t mind a narrator or main character with ideas, even ideas contrary to my own. What I mind is the author’s clumsy way of throwing a political viewpoint (and sometimes flat-out name-calling) into the book.
It was so bad that there were times I pitched the book across the room. The reason I kept reading was because I wanted to see how bad it got. And it got bad, dear reader. Eye-rolling, laugh-out-loud, ludicrously bad. Every conservative finds success. Every liberal finds heartbreak and unhappiness. And there’s no room for anyone in the center. Characters in Empire of Lies can be clearly delineated into good, strong conservatives or weak, craven liberals.
Stuff like that takes a reader out of the story, and that’s bad. As a reader, I’m there for the story, and that’s all. I’m not there for a primer on why conservative Christian values are wonderful and will save the country. I can live with a main character who believes that—hell, I can even support that—but not when it’s done so badly. I’d say the same thing about any political point of view.
And lest you think I’m picking on just Klavan, the great and legendary John D. MacDonald used to do a similar thing in his Travis McGee series. Every now and then, MacDonald would rail against the developers and thieves and crooked politicians who populated his adopted state of Florida. And every time he does it, he takes the reader out of the story.
I was also disappointed in the villains of the book (and, wow, there were many): mainstream media in all its varied formats, the university system, and, of course, terrorists. Muslim ones. Because as we know, all Muslims are a threat to the American way of life. (How I wish there was a sarcasm font. Comic sans, maybe?)
There are, however, some entertaining parts to the book. Klavan’s take on Patrick Piersall (whom readers will recognize as a barely disguised William Shatner) is spot-on, perfect, and hilarious. His characterizations of vapid Hollywood stars and starlets are also great (again the only slightly veiled real-life love triangle of Jennifer Aniston, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie).
The action was serviceable but not great, with one incredibly unbelievable moment where the untrained, amateur protagonist fights off four wild-eyed terrorists who have invaded his mother’s home. Reading that scene, I literally rolled my eyes.
At the end of the book—mercifully, it did finally end—I tried to talk to my wife about the book, to articulate my thoughts. I was so aggravated with the possibility of the story versus what the actual product was that I couldn’t even vent properly.
“Oh well,” my wife finally said. “At least it was only a dollar.”
I’m not sure how to break it to her, but she overpaid.