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A Review of James Patterson's Thriller Second Chance


Friday, Mar. 29, 2002

James Patterson's new novel, Second Chance, is the second in a line of thrillers that debuted last year with First to Die. Both novels features Lieutenant Lindsay Boxer and her three close female friends, who are all in the crime business - Assistant D.A. Jill Bernhardt, crime reporter Cindy Thomas, and medical examiner Claire Washburn. For this novel, Patterson has worked with a co-writer, Andrew Gross.

In Second Chance, a serial killer is targeting African-Americans in different areas of San Francisco - each of whom, it turns out, has a connection to the police force. The four women set out to discover the identity and motive of the killer. It turns out that they work together on the case far more effectively than either the male police officers on the beat, or the FBI agents who are called in.

Patterson (and Gross) tell their story using short chapters that alternate among the third-person point of view, the point of view of Lindsay Boxer, and the point of view of the serial killer himself. It's an intriguing conceit for a thriller, juxtaposing the daily lives, needs, and perspectives of four smart, capable hardworking women with the dark mind of a male serial killer.

The Women's Murder Club - and The Men's Club It Surpasses

The four main women characters form what Lindsay refers to as "the Women's' Murder Club." The club - a casual but intense banding-together of a group of like-minded women - meets for margaritas or beer and when it does the women talk about what's going on in their lives, and also about Lindsay's case. In an amusing development, the women get much more done over after-hours cocktails than the FBI agents do during their workdays.

Yet the men, too, have their own club - a sort of old boys' club that forms between the FBI agents and Chief of Detectives. At one point, they neglect to bother to invite Lindsay to one of their meetings, but she confronts them on it. As she comments, "I barreled into the chief's office. Then I stopped, speechless. . . . I hadn't been invited to the latest task force meeting. 'This is bullshit,' I said. 'It's total crap. What is this--some kind of a men's club?' Tracchio, Ruddy and Hull from the FBI, Carr, Ryan. Five boys seated around the table--minus me, the woman. The acting chief stood up. His face was red. 'Lindsay, we were about to call you up.'" Yet this is the only moment in which the writers mention the old boys' club. More moments like this would have shown what a woman really has to deal with in the work force, even a tough woman with moxie like Lindsay.

Weak Depictions of Women's Personal Lives

Unfortunately, the four women's nonwork lives are not portrayed nearly as believably as their work lives are. Patterson (and Gross) paint the women with too broad a brush, not showing the subtleties of a woman's life.

We learn, for example, that Lindsay likes to relax at home and enjoys tea, a fine detail but one that is endlessly repeated. Indeed, we read on three separate occasions that she "made myself a cup of Orange Zinger", and "a cup of Red Zinger," and after a particularly rough night, she asks her father to make some "Moonlight Sonata tea." Surely Lindsay's life goes far beyond her tea cupboard - and indeed, the authors do go farther, but not far enough.

Like Lindsay's characterization, the portraits of the other three women are also a bit glib. We are told, for instance, that "Jill was the most driven woman [Lindsay] knew. You could catch her at her desk most any night until after eight. Her husband, Steve, ran a venture fund for Bank America. They were fast-track achievers: They mountain-biked in Moab, windsurfed on the Columbia River in Oregon." Jill ultimately loses her pregnancy because she refuses to slow down with her D.A. work.

Lest we believe Jill is simply a hard-driving caricature of a yuppie, however, we are also told that she used to cut herself when she was younger. In addition, the book implies that Jill has undergone a transformation, learning something about what's important in her life. By the end of the book, though only a few months have passed, Patterson suggests Jill is pregnant again: Lindsay notes, "I'd invited the girls over for dinner. Jill said she had big news that she wanted to share."

Claire, in contrast, is depicted as the only well-balanced one, with a loving husband and children, and no problems. Meanwhile, the only glimpses we see of Cindy's internal life are her initial meeting and series of dates with the dashing black minister Aaron Winslow. And the meal she makes for him seems to come straight out of Waiting to Exhale: The Wedgwood and Waterford is laid out, and Cindy has prepared "almond crusted chicken, a romaine salad, orzo pasta with peas and mint." But we long for Cindy's musings, not just Cindy's menu.

Fathers, Daughters, and Second Chances - But Not Enough Introspection

The writers try harder with Lindsay, and there is a bit more of her personal life in the book, but it isn't very well-developed.

Most importantly, we learn early on that Lindsay's father left her and her mother when she was a little girl and that she hasn't spoken to him for twenty-two years. Lo and behold, Lindsay's father turns up in her life again! His sudden return turns out to play an important role not just in Lindsay's personal life, but also in the larger plot of tracking down the serial killer.

The book does convey the importance of a father to a daughter's emotional life. However, to be more effective, the book needed to show more of the complexity of a woman's thoughts. The book needs more moments of introspection like this one, by Lindsay: "I replayed the events of the horrible case. It was the second time I'd had to fight a killer one-to-one. Why was that? What did it mean? What did it say about my life and what it had come to?"

A Page-Turner, But With Disappointments

Second Chance is a page-turner, but its ending is a bit of a letdown. I expected more of a twist, and the motive for the spree of racial crimes was unconvincing in establishing the killer's mens rea ("criminal intent"). Moreover, unlike with some thrillers, learning the identity of the killer didn't seem to pull all the missing pieces together.

Still, the book is an entertaining read, it does contain a twist, and the characters are compelling enough to merit more in the series. I found the series' premise - four women band together as friends to solve murders while they seek love and reconciliation in their private lives - to be a strong one. But in the next novel in the series, Patterson (and Gross), should make the women characters more complex, so that their thoughts and lives are portrayed as being just as multilayered as the killer's. Yet seeing the heights the book has already reached on the bestseller lists, my hunch (and who's to blame them) is that the writers care less about developing character and adding literary nuance than hunkering down to finish the next installment.

Laura Hodes, a 2000 graduate of the University of Chicago Law School and a frequent FindLaw guest columnist and book reviewer, is an attorney and freelance writer living in Chicago. She is currently clerking for the Hon. George Lindberg of the Northern District of Illinois.

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