Sunday, July 31, 2011

Show, Don't Tell: a Review of Will Lavender's "Dominance"

Dominance by Will Lavender

I was initially drawn to Dominance by its plot:  twelve years into his prison sentence, a Literature professor convicted of murdering two students is given permission to teach a special night class from prison via a video feed.  Ostensibly a class about the reclusive and enigmatic author Paul Fallows, in reality it is the beginning of a game created by the professor to win his release from prison.  Fifteen years later, the members of the night class are drawn together again after one of their members is murdered in a way that suggests that the game never ended.

As I said, it was Dominance's plot that drew me to it, and for the most part, that aspect didn't disappoint; I was invested enough in the parallel storylines which bounced back and forth in time from the original night class to the present reunion that I could hardly put the book down.  Unfortunately, while the plot did not disappoint, the same cannot be said about most every other aspect of the book.

My biggest problem with the book was with the execution of the night class sequences, and their inability to live up to the expectations generated by the present day sequences; to wit, every member of the class talks frequently about how much that experience changed their lives, and their are many intimations about the power of the game known as The Procedure sprinkled throughout their conversations, but the flashback scenes don't convey any of that effectively.  There's only one Procedure sequence, and it most definitely does not exhibit the power that is suggested by all the other references, and the attempts to make the professor's actions during the class feel menacing fall flat.  There's a lot of description in the present of the relationships between the classmates in the past, but very little of that makes it onto the page in the past.

All in all, I think the book could have benefited from one of two things: either an expansion of those flashback chapters to give more depth to the characters and situation, or a complete excising of them. Lavender too often fell back on having characters tell us about the past without effectively showing it when he had the opportunity, but if the story had been told totally in the present, then it's possible that the tantalizing hints given by the characters about their past might have been enough to satisfy. 

I suppose I should stress here that I am not a big mystery reader, so it's quite likely that what I was looking for in the book isn't what a mystery reader craves in their genre.  If you're mainly interested in watching people tracking down clues as the mystery unfolds in ways you weren't expecting, then I think Dominance is well worth your time; the central mystery kept me engaged throughout, and the blurbs on the back about the ending are spot-on.  And, I have to admit that the snippets of  discussion of the works of "Paul Fallows" sprinkled throughout were filled with some interesting ideas that show off the fact that author Will Lavender used to be a literature professor himself.  I just wish he had taken the time to flesh out other aspects as well.

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