Over the last little while David Montgomery has devoted much energy at the Crime Fiction Dossier on the inner workings of book reviewing, all of which is required reading. But one thing he hasn't touched on, and something I've thought quite a lot about lately, is what I deem the saturation point -- or when is there simply very little to say about a particular book in question, to the point that reviewing said book is almost irrelevant?
A perfect example is Michael Connelly's THE CLOSERS, which is currently tied with Elmore Leonard's THE HOT KID as the most reviewed crime fiction novel of the moment. I expect, when all is said and done, that THE CLOSERS will be reviewed by just about every major paper. But it won't be in my next column.
Not because I disliked it. Far from that; I think Bosch's return to uniform has given the series a big lift and will extend the life for a little while longer than I, perhaps, expected. But when I finished the book and thought about how to distill it down to a 200 word review, I couldn't do it. Those who read the series -- and since it sells so well, many do -- will buy the book in hardcover the minute it's out (or at least get their hands on it in a timely manner.) Those who don't are not very likely to pay attention to yet another review. And those who've never heard of Michael Connelly and want to start are better served to pick up an earlier installment anyway.
Now, when I choose a book to review, in my mind there's some sort of "hook", some compelling reason for me to do so. A big-ticket writer formerly on hiatus who's returned (think James Crumley); a much-hyped debut novel that may or may not pass the test; an exotic setting, a semi-unique subject, intricate structure. And occasionally, a book that's just a great example of a writer in total command of his or her craft and talent. There has to be something that separates this book from all the other ones, to crib from the Passover seder. Or there has to be something in my own opinion that elevates it above all the noise to some sort of signal.
And whatever I have to say about THE CLOSERS in print is ultimately noise.
Bear in mind, though, that I said "print," not anywhere. But the process of how I determine what books are column-bound and others are blog-bound is another post altogether.
I do think the longer a series goes on, the more likely it will become review-proof. And so I suppose I question the wisdom of Book Review editors assigning the latest series installment by Big Ticket Author X to review, because what's the point? Does it really make a difference? I remember when Patricia Cornwell's last book was out and there were reviews all over the place -- mostly negative, too. But the book sold well. Maybe not quite as well as before but those who loved Kay Scarpetta when the books were good still believed maybe this was the one where she'd get back to form. Were they going to pay attention to what a book reviewer said? Hardly. So again, reviews were just noise.
Of course, one doesn't have to be a New York Times Bestselling Author to be review-proof. Sometimes you just have to be around a long time, staying at a high level for years, perhaps decades. If Ross Thomas were still alive, his books would almost certainly be review-proof for me. Even if there was a slight dip in quality, ultimately the books stayed (and probably would still stay) within a certain comfort zone. I love his books because they are expertly crafted and entertaining beyond belief, but to review them? One separate from his entire body of work? That's something I couldn't do.
Same with Donald Westlake, whatever hat he wears. How to evaluate the current Dortmunder novel on its own? Oh, there are modifications and new plot twists and the like but to me, it's just another damn good book. So much for enlightened criticism. Maybe if his next book were something completely different, but then again, he's done almost every "completely different" type of book. Again, evaluating a single book by him as compared to his entire canon is just about impossible.
And yet, my last review was of THE HOT KID. A book that would seem to fit all of the review-proof qualifications I've listed above. And yet I still reviewed it? Why? Several reasons: one, I was assigned to do so, but I suppose I could have turned it down. But I viewed it as a challenge, considering my well-known ambivalence about his earlier books. And I liked the book quite a lot and tried to show why this worked for me, even though many Leonardian tropes were in evidence. So in this case, the hook trumped the review proof-ness potential.
Which leaves me with several questions for the backblog: even if it's a dangerous exercise, which authors tend towards being review-proof? Is it something inherent to long-running series? And do you shake your head when certain books are reviewed everywhere even though doing so likely has little (if any) effect on sales and personal preference?