By Brian Martin | Graphic/Novels Editor Published: 01/09/2014 1:00 pm EST
Publish date: November 19, 2013 Publisher: Titan Books, Hard Case Crime | Buy Book
I’m sensing a trend with the early Michael Crichton releases from Titan’s Hard Case Crime series. A young, handsome, jet-setting man travels abroad, meets shadowy, mysterious characters, stumbles into romance with a bikini-clad girl he meets on the beach, runs around without knowing much of what’s going on (and without a real desire to figure it out), then stumbles out of the danger just as awkwardly as he fell into it. I’d say there’s a bit of wish fulfillment going on in these books, but the protagonists tend to be so foppish that I can’t possibly believe that’s true. Maybe Crichton is going for suave, self-assured, James Bond-types of heroes in these novels, but the results tend to be characters who, in modern terms, would probably be described as “douchebags.”
Peter Ross, the hero of Zero Cool, is young (only 26, and fresh out of med school) and largely inexperienced in the ways of the world, and yet it never truly feels like he’s out of his element. Rather than marveling at the life-threatening lunacy around him like, for instance, Indiana Jones or John McClane (who were seasoned vets when we met them and still found time to be freaked out), Ross takes much of what happens in stride, despite how disturbing or dangerous it is. He even manages to quip and gibe when facing his tormenters (and not in a nervous, “coping with adversity” sort of way). This means one of two things, neither of which is good for the story: either Ross is poorly written or he’s an idiot. Either way, he’s a hard guy to connect with.
Making matters worse is the romantic plot that runs through the entire novel. As he walks the beach at Tossa del Mar, Ross quickly meets Angela Locke, an English stewardess (or so she says) in a skimpy bikini. The encounter is so random that the later suggestion that it was orchestrated by the novel’s villain defies belief. For all of the Rube Goldberg-like plotting at play in Zero Cool, it’s almost like Habib Marwan, villain of 24’s wacky fourth season, was behind things. The plan requires too many seemingly unrelated events to line up perfectly.
That Peter and Angela are in bed together within pages is perfectly reasonable in a story like this, but when they start throwing the “L” word around (and no, I don’t mean “lesbians”) after scant hours of knowing each other, the relationship loses any sense of plausibility, even in a fictitious work. Their relationship is a blank slate, and having the characters tell us they love one another is nowhere near enough for us to actually believe in their feelings.
The novel’s (eventual) primary villain is the count (lowercase), a little fella who compensates for his lack of physical stature with a huge…cologne collection. Seriously, he puts Brian Fantana to shame. The count’s smoothly confident, cool persona is slightly Blofeldian, as is his choice in henchmen. There’s Joaquim, his hired muscle who (in true Bond fashion) has a distinct physical malady—in this case, the character speaks through a voicebox. There’s also the count’s pet: a falcon that he (SPOILER) uses to attack his enemies (after spraying them with a particular scent from his collection in ways that are only inconspicuous for the characters in the story).
If it sounds a little like Crichton is trying too hard, well that’s because he really is. A lot of things happen in the story, but there is little sense behind any of them. To lean on the 24 comparison again (although Peter Ross is no Jack Bauer), Zero Cool feels like it’s going to be about one thing, then ends up being about another, before becoming about another thing. But instead of spreading this out over a television season, it all happens in the span of just over 200 pages. Much like the other novels he wrote during this period, Crichton seems to take a lot of things he’s previously seen onscreen and in books and throw them in a literary blender to see what he gets. It worked decently enough for Scratch One. Not so much here.
As limp as the story is, the awkward, disposable framing device doesn’t really help matters. This bizarre sequence feels completely unnecessary, as an elderly Ross recounts the story to his grandson, Todd, for a school project. This sequence was written by Crichton for a 2008 release of the novel, as the author, much like his lead character, looked back on this story some 40 years later. As Ross explains to Todd that he’s never told anyone the story before, Todd responds, “If I were you, I’d never tell it again. ‘Cause it makes you look silly.” It’s the one moment in which Crichton seems to nod at us, the audience, and say, “Yeah, I know. This was pretty lousy. Maybe you should just read Jurassic Park again next time.”
Brian L. Martin is an educator, writer, and amateur curmudgeon. An avid fan of novels, movies, and beer, he would much rather spend his time reading comics, a lifelong love since receiving a copy of The Amazing Spider-Man # 242 from Spider-Man himself in 1983. His favorite books include The Grapes of Wrath, Siddhartha, and The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, which is heavy enough to be considered the only real defense weapon he has in his home. He currently lives with his wife in Uppsala, Sweden.
Summary:DISAPPOINTING: Crichton's Zero Cool is a fast, but unfulfilling, read that is frequently absurd, with unengaging leads, screwball villains, and a romantic subplot that tries to be more significant than it is.
Author:Michael Crichton (as John Lange)