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Dashed Off Fluff
on 6 December 2001
KERR'S WWII-ERA Berlin Noir Trilogy is some of my favorite historical fiction, so I figured I'd give one of his more recent thrillers a chance. This one is set in 1960, mainly in Havana, Miami, New York, with side trips to Vegas and Chicago and takes place over the course of the Nixon/Kennedy election and the buildup to JFK's inauguration. Kerr weaves a fairly elaborate plot around the JFK assassination conspiracy mythos, involving a top assassin, the mob, Cuban intelligence, crooked CIA and FBI agents running amok, inept Secret Service, and a bevy of sexpots-all building up to an attempt to kill Kennedy prior to the inauguration. There are two major, major reversals (ie. unexpected plot twists), and many reviewers are inexplicably revealing the first of these in their summaries. I will not, but suffice to say, it's these two reversals that keep the pages turning. Of course, we all know what happened in Dallas, several years later, and Kerr manages to produce an ending to explain that as well.
Some reviewers have complained that since we know the assassination doesn't take place, there's no suspense. Personally, I found that creating and building the suspense in the face of such knowledge is Kerr's most impressive achievement in this case. Much like Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal, the reader is drawn into the world and methodology of the killer and those tracking him. Unfortunately, plot seems to be occurring at the expense of character. There's no one to really root for or care about, which is fine in some types of fiction, but doesn't usually work so well in thrillers. Not only is there no one to care about, there's scant characterization to begin with-the male characters all have the same tired tough-guy patter, and the women are exclusively characterized as sex objects (and not surprisingly, banal ones at that). Kerr's attention to cultural icons and detail, which was a wonderful element in his Berlin Noir trilogy, proves to be far less interesting when applied to America in the 1960s (perhaps because it is so much more familiar). When you combine these weaknesses with several linguistic anachronisms, and a total absence of the wonderful turns of phrase in his earlier work, you get the feeling this was a rather dashed off bit of fluff for Kerr.