Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Book Review: Amberville, by Tim Davys

Eric, now an adult and a successful advertising executive, has been successful in putting his reckless and somewhat criminal youthful indiscretions behind him. At least, that's what he thought. But then the local kingpin he once worked for shows up with a non-negotiable proposition. Find the hit list that his name is rumored to be on, and remove it from the list. Otherwise, he will kill Eric's girlfriend. Now, Eric must get the old gang back together and track down the "Death List" at any cost.

A compelling and straight-forward plot. The big twist? Eric, the crime boss, and all of the other characters in the book are stuffed animals. They live in a world completely populated by stuffed animals, in which the young and old are delivered and taken away by pick-up trucks. It is definitely an interesting plot twist. But is it necessary?

The idea isn't completely original (The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, The Big Over Easy: A Nursery Crime, Meet the Feebles), but that doesn't mean it isn't good. It just means that the author might want to approach the concept from an original angle.

Tim Davys does, but he unfortunately decides to play it straight. The idea of stuffed animals in a detective mystery novel begs for plenty of sarcastic tongue-in-cheek humor, but Amberville avoids silly humor and instead relies on the subtle absurdities (a small stuffed dove as a crime kingpin, for example) to deliver the humor on their own, which they never really manage to do. Even the author's approach to the way characters are named in Amberville (simply a first name followed by the type of stuffed animal they are), shows a lack of desire to truly have fun with the concept. In short, things that should be comical or farcical are just as boring as they would be in the real world.

The result is a story that could easily be translated into a realistic, non-fantasy setting and written as a straight hardboiled noir novel. Amberville doesn't necessarily fail at making the concept work, it just doesn't fully convince the reader that fantastical setting was crucial to the story.

Amberville is supposed to reveal truths about human nature, morality, religion, and the concepts of good and evil, by having stuffed animals act out the scenarios in which these philosophical debates occur. This is where the book does fail, much in the same way that White Man's Burden failed. Changing reality in some ironic or absurd way might seem deep and meaningful at first. But unless there are other connections on multiple levels, all that you are left with is an overused gimmick.

Amberville is a good book. It has a compelling story, interesting characters, and enough twists and turns to keep a mystery lover interested until the end. It just doesn't quite manage to be what it wanted to be, and that's what keeps it from being a great book.

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