Thursday, August 25, 2011

Book Review: “The Arranger” by L.J. Sellers


The Arranger1 Roller Ball meets Frankenstein in this semi-dystopian, near-future thriller from award-winning journalist and acclaimed novelist of the Detective Jackson series: The Sex Club, Secrets to Die For, Thrilled to Death , L.J. Sellers. The Arranger is scary in it’s realism and the feasibility of it’s premise.

The story is set in the U.S. in the year 2023, just a short 12 years from now. And in that short futuristic journey America has been transformed into a world that is somewhat bleak with society in a repressive and controlled state.

The Arranger: A Futuristic Thriller

The unemployment rates are above 20%, jobs have become a valuable commodity and those with medical insurance, or “med cards” are at a premium. Government is down-sized to the point of being nothing but figure heads, federal and state government has been in a financial crisis for more than a decade, and the measure of a presidency has become disaster response.

Corporations and big business are the true powers, as they control all government agencies and control who works where and the position they can occupy. Raises and advancement are history. Agencies such as OSHA are gone, the FDA is powerless and money for public services, i.e. the police and emergency workers, fire departments and EMT’s are very restricted.  Air travel is a thing for the elite and vacations mean you don’t go to work for a few days. The homeless are everywhere and poor people orphan their children because they simply can’t afford them.

The police are focused on violent crime, terrorists and the drug trade exclusively. People are expected to look out for themselves. Civil lawsuits and protection under civil law is a thing of the past. Oil and gas prices are prohibitive and only the wealthy regularly drive. The environment has been so damaged that people can’t spend much time outside. Temperatures regularly rise to above 130 degrees, violent and destructive storms are the norm.

Living in this world is former police detective and free lance EMT (unless you have a high level med card, ambulances and state sponsored EMT’s won’t respond to your call) Lara Evans is called to the scene of a shooting. The victim is a high level government official who wishes to avoid any media or police attention. He is bisexual and homosexuality is against the law with the norm being “don’t ask don’t tell”, but any scandal could cost him his job.

The victim, Thaddeus Morton, is the federal employment commissioner, and by being in this position,  he runs The Gauntlet. The Gauntlet is a cross between The Olympics and American Gladiator, a contest held yearly and sponsored by a big corporation with one contestant from each state chosen to compete through a series of local competitions. The contestant that wins the national Gauntlet wins for their state a commitment from the sponsoring corporation to build a factory in the winners state, brining tens of thousands of jobs to that state. It is a nationally televised event and draws the biggest viewer demographic of the year, with the audience voting to award extra points to contestants.

As it happens, Lara Evans is the contestant from Oregon, so she allows herself to be influenced into not reporting the commissioners shooting – a serious offense that could lead to her loosing her license to work as a free lance EMT. She does this in the hopes that he can help smooth the way for her in the competition. An underlying theme in this story is the capacity for corruption at all levels of society.

The shooter is quickly revealed to be Paul Madsen, a dumpy tech nerd in the Personnel and Payroll office, which has control over the national job pool. Morton initially reported the shooter to be his boy friend, but Paul has other motivations and through the narrative, the reader learns that Morton doesn’t know Paul or his motive to try and kill him. Paul is an orphan raised by a kind lady and is good at his tech job and finds himself in a position of compiling for his agency a list of replacement candidates for all important jobs in the public and private system.

Paul is also obsessed with a beautiful coworker, Camille,  who is a career climber and willing to do anything to advance herself. Paul knows that he stands no chance with Camille, he has a rather large and bulbous nose, is 40 pound over weight, has a weak chin, and isn’t very interesting, attractive or assertive personally.

Paul soon thinks that since he is privy to the national database of replacements for key positions that he can also manipulate the people that already have those positions and get them fired, then sell the position to one of the replacements. He does this and uses the money for plastic surgery, gym memberships, and drugs, which bare a resemblance to steroids, though this is never really stated, to improve his appearance and thus, win Camille. Camille also leads Paul on into thinking that if he could get her a better, more high profile job, that she will be “grateful” to him.

The suspense is built on the moral barriers that Paul will cross to fulfill his obsession, his journey from quiet geek to romantically obsessed, steroid drive criminal. At the same time, Lara walks her own fine line of moral ambiguity in exercising her influence over Morton, the commissioner of The Gauntlet. She uses this influence to allow her to possess a Taser and a fire arm while competing in The Gauntlet, but when her roommate, who she does not like, turns up murdered and she is the suspect, she doesn’t know whether Morton is framing her to get rid of her or if Morton’s  lover is seeking revenge. The beautiful, amoral Camille plays the part of manipulative femme fatale.

There are “Noir like” themes throughout the novel as both Lara and Paul wage a battle for their own redemption. Just how far will they go to achieve their goals?

The novel is very engrossing as we explore and come to believe that society could very soon become the picture painted by the author and explore the minutiae of that society; it’s technology, medical advances, entertainment as well as it’s degradation into a cold, bleak place for individuals and it’s fertile ground for corruption, both personal and societal. It’s a very good read for that reason, but the character development is, in my view, weak since most of the story is told through narration, instead of dialog. For that reason it is hard to empathize with or get to know the individual characters. The plot is outstanding and scary and oh, too real and Ms. Sellers does a great job in laying the scenery and conveying that sense of place but I would have preferred to have been “shown” not “told” and this could have been more fully realized through a dialog driven story. Over all, though, a very worth while novel and I look forward to exploring LJ Sellers work more fully.LJ Sellers

L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist, editor, and novelist and fellow Oregonian, living in Eugene. Her Detective Jackson series has won praise from readers and critics alike, and her two standalone thrillers, The Baby Thief and The Suicide Effect both garnered excellent reviews.

The Dirty Lowdown

The review Copy of The Arranger was provided to me by the author, L.J. Sellers.

Copyright © 2011 Robert Carraher All Rights Reserved

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