Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Pain Scale, a review

I haven't reviewed a book in a while and I think I'm rusty. The Pain Scale is the work of one of my instructors at CSULB, Tyler Dilts. It was a unique pleasure to read it, just to see a sample of the old gentleman's craft.

But I had other reasons for reading this book. It is a detective mystery, even if of a different sort. And I am working on a mystery myself, though I admit not at the pace I would like. Therefore, reading this book is a sort of preparation for writing my own work. Old Tyler still has some tricks to teach me and I picked out many of them in this book.


The Pain Scale (Long Beach Homicide series #2)
Genre: Detective, Mystery, Police Procedural

Overview: Long Beach Police Detective Danny Beckett must deal with chronic pain and the gritty nature of his existence while trying to solve the gruesome murders of an upper-class wife and her young children.

What didn't work for me:

There is a difference between what is possibleprobable, and plausible. In fiction, authors must work with all three. Depending on the tone and vision of the novel, the author may choose to rely on one of the three more than the others.

Fantasy novels use magic and creatures of myth and legend. These elements are in the far reaches of what is possible in our universe. The events depicted are therefore not probable. Yet, a skilled author may describe what happens in a Fantasy novel in such a way that the story seems plausible, which is also true of Science Fiction--just look at the way George Lucas made us believe in the awesome Sith, lightsabers, the Force, Jedis, etc.

I could argue that plausibility is the driving force behind the elements of fiction. But this is not a completely new concept. This is also known in another by another name: Suspension of disbelief. Or, if you bullshit me the right way, I'm liable to believe you. But this is an essay for a different day.

One of the most enjoyable qualities of A King of Infinite Space, the first novel in Dilts' series, was the level of realism that coated the procedures of the homicide detectives, the city, and the criminal element. As far as the plot went in A King of Infinite Space, it could have happened yesterday or perhaps might happen tomorrow with very few facts changed.

In The Pain Scale, Tyler Dilts again shows us a plot with a similar coating, but it scratches the borders of what is probable. Without giving too much away, my problem was with the spec ops and the Russian mob, both of which could easily find a home in any Patterson or Lee Child novel.

I won't beat him up too much for this though since the resolution satisfies.

What worked for me:

The characters are the most enjoyable aspect of the novel. Danny and Jen are two of the most authentic characters I have read. Their idiosyncrasies, passions, pains--all of it--come across as real. And this is so important in the digital age when literary production rivals the production of burgers at fast food restaurants--McLiterature reigns.  

Did I want to know that Danny loves a certain type of breakfast burrito? Did I want to know that Jen is looking for a new place to live and Danny wants to help? Did I want to know about the myriad of side notes about Long Beach Dilts throws in every page?

I don't have to know these things to understand the plot, but they are essential to understanding and liking the characters. Long Beach is a character in this novel, as much as Los Angeles is in any Chandler novel. All along, I felt as though I was sitting down and having a conversation with the protagonist and could call myself his friend. And though he didn't say it, I could understand why he hasn't made a romantic move on his partner, even though I could sense the attraction he has for her. There is no rush for a sex scene or a declaration of love or a wedding at the end of the novel. It just wouldn't make sense.

Many times while reading a novel, I get the sense that these are characters created for a novel. They are often predictable and their sentiments and reflections are, for a lack of a better expression, "garden variety." There is hardly any human growth, though there is tons of character development. Maybe I confused you just now. I don't see character development as human growth. Character development has become a cliche for novels, which hardly captures what human beings go through.

Character development has the taint of Hollywood films. In most movies, it is expected that whatever ailment the main character suffers from will be dealt with by the end of the film. That's character development, which is part of the traditional story arc, but it's not human growth. What I'm talking about is slow, sometimes circular, and with many failures that are never neatly dealt with.

Think about it: After you get that big promotion you worked so hard for, do the credits start playing, signaling the end of your life? Hopefully not. What happens is, you have new challenges riddled with the possibility for failure. Maybe you didn't get the promotion at all. Does your life then cut to a montage of scenes from the work you did to overcome that failure? No. You look for a new job or become grudgingly content with your current position.

Sometimes, life ends in failure.

In the novel, for example, Danny wants desperately to deal with the chronic pain he suffers from. He finds an outlet in immersing himself in police work, but it creates new perils. In the end, he never successfully deals with the chronic pain and in reality, someone in his situation never can. It is just something to deal with. But because we are human, we want to try different things that may alleviate the pain. This is what Danny does and he is more human because of it.

And that brings me to the other aspect of this novel that worked for me: The pain. It is called The Pain Scale for a reason. Beyond the chronic pain that festers the protagonist after an operation to reattach his severed hand, there is the pain of the cast around him and the city itself. Worthy of note was Harlan, that crusty old retiree suffering quietly, and the pain that Jen and other police officers go through when a partner is injured in their line of work--it is very similar to the pain soldiers go through when they lose a comrade in war.

Pain, pain, pain. Life is pain. Dilts showcases it well.


Every work of literature, from the simplest work of genre to the greatest literary masterpiece, suffers from flaws. It is inevitable; the writer is only human. And by "flaw" I don't mean a misspelled word or a formatting error. There are flaws that can never be overcome. But it is a sign of greatness to see an author work onward despite these flaws. The author acknowledges that they do the best they can and can do no more.  

The Pain Scale is an excellent second addition to Tyler Dilts' series. It goes beyond the traditional Mystery by putting character dynamics right up there with the plot.

With this in mind, I would say that The Pain Scale is a fresh story of frustration and pain. It hurts to read it because it is so much like real life. It shouldn't stop you though.