Monday, December 17, 2007

Terminal by Brian Keene (dark suspense)

After finding many serious flaws in the only two of Brian Keene's novels I'd read — The Rising and Ghoul — I was hesitant to delve any further into his work. But I kept hearing people say, "Read Terminal. It's very different from his other books," and since I had enjoyed the page-turning qualities of both those previous books, I decided to bite the bullet and give it a try, especially since an online pal offered to loan the limited edition novella to me so I could read it for free. (Only the expanded novel-length version is available commercially.)

Tommy O'Brien has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. The disease has taken hold of various parts of his body ("like roots") and is therefore inoperable. With a wife and son to provide for, but recently laid-off and with increasing debts (and maybe only a month to live), Tommy makes a pivotal decision: he and his friends will rob their local bank so that his family will be taken care of after his death.

The things Keene does well are all in Terminal: believable characters, a fast-paced plot, and really tight suspense. What makes this one different is its probability: just about everything in here could really happen and probably has. In fact, up until the robbery itself, Terminal was one of the best stories I'd recently read. The camaraderie between Tommy, John, and Sherm is realistically portrayed, and Tommy's love for his family makes him easy to identify with.

It's too bad that the story required the bank robbery to take place because that's where things go wrong — not only in the story, but with the story as well. For example, the inclusion of the character of Benjy seems entirely wrongheaded and unnecessary, especially since his appearance does nothing to change the story's conclusion. It's as if Keene was not satisfied with a simple little crime thriller with a twist, but felt as if he had to add a supernatural element in keeping with the rest of his work.

And once the robbery begins, everything that was truly readable about Terminal pretty much goes out the window. (A cursory examination led me to believe that the novel-length edition actually expands on the robbery, which is truly unfortunate because what it really needs is more family scenes.)

Still, Terminal is without a doubt the best thing Brian Keene has done yet. But since he seems to have continued on with his zombies and other flesh-eaters, I am still unlikely to pick up another of his books until he realizes how to leave well enough alone and let a really good story speak for itself.

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