Friday, 11 October 2013

R U Game?: Game by Barry Lyga Review

Having proven himself by capturing a serial killer in his home town of Lobo’s Nod, Jazz Dent, son of America’s most notorious serial killer, Billy Dent, is called on by the NYPD to help them catch the Hat-Dog Killer, a serial killer who is terrorising the streets of New York City.






 
A friend of mine once told me that he refuses to start reading a series of books until the writer has written the final volume because it annoys him so much when he gets to the inevitable open ending of each instalment and has to wait a year or more to find out what happens next. Having just finished Game, Barry Lyga’s sequel to I Hunt Killers, I am starting to think this might not be such a bad idea. I get that writers of series books like to end on a cliff-hanger in order to encourage readers to buy their next book as soon as it hits the shops, but when a writer leaves so many plot threads hanging at the end of a book that it’s as if he or she forgot to write the final act, I find myself being turned off reading further rather than longing to read more. Unfortunately, such is the case with Game.

I say unfortunately, because I Hunt Killers (which can best be described as “I was a teenage Dexter”) was one of my favourite books of 2012. It’s the book I think should have won either the 2012 Edgar or Stoker award for Best YA mystery/horror novel and in my review (here), I tipped it as being the next big thing in YA fiction. As such, I really wanted to like Game. And in some respects, I did.

In Jazz, Lyga has created an original and compelling character (can you name any other teenage serial killer profilers?) and through Game, Lyga does all the things necessary to set up Jazz as a continuing franchise character: by setting the story in NYC, he has expanded Jazz’s universe and created the potential for future novels to be set in other locations; and he has upped the ante by making the killings bigger and badder than in the first novel and creating an enduring nemesis for Jazz, much like Moriarty was to Sherlock Holmes. I appreciated the fact that Jazz was facing a bigger challenge than in I Hunt Killers and enjoyed watching him cope with crimes in the “big city”.

Where Lyga goes wrong, however, is by making the mystery simultaneously too easy to solve and too hard. In I Hunt Killers, I didn’t figure out who the killer was, but I was left with the feeling that I could have, had I thought harder about the mystery at hand. In Game, I didn’t figure out who the killer was because he only appears in one scene prior to being revealed for what he is. Yet, at the same time, I figured out the “game” Hat-Dog was playing almost immediately (I think I had seen something similar in one of the two hundred different mystery series I watch on TV) and then had to wait until page 400 for Jazz to catch up. Lyga has underestimated the intelligence of his readers and the book suffers as a result.

Furthermore, while Jazz’s girlfriend Connie was merely a minor supporting character in I Hunt Killers, in Game, Lyga increases her role to the point of giving her her own subplot and mystery to solve. By making Connie a detective in her own right, Lyga diminishes what makes Jazz special. The whole premise of this series is that Jazz is capable of out-thinking killers and cops alike because he was brought up by a serial killer. If an ordinary teenager (i.e. Connie) can also out-think the police etc, then that means that Jazz’s abilities have nothing to do with his upbringing and more to do with the fact that the police are just plain dumb, which renders the whole series pointless.

As for the “shocking” reveal in the final line of the novel, I’d actually figured that out in the first novel. If a good ending can save a mediocre novel and a bad ending can ruin a great novel, what does it say when you finish a novel and find yourself saying aloud: “well, duh!” I think the answer is “nothing complementary”.

Verdict: Follow the advice of my friend and wait until Lyga finishes this series before embarking on this open-ended follow-up to the otherwise excellent I Hunt Killers.

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