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Dead Even is a great name for a suspense novel in that the phrase is nicely ambiguous: "Dead even" as in a race which ends in a tie, or "dead even" as in "even after all of that treatment he was dead." In this melodramatic novel we are presented with married lawyers who end up on opposite sides of a complicated criminal case in which each has been threatened that if he or she does not win the case he or she will end up dead, even.
There are at least four ingredients that are required for a work of fiction to work: character, credibility, conflict, and consistency. Ad to those: style, crisp writing, clever plotting, and the occasional surprise and you are just about headed for the best sellers' list. In Dead Even Brad Meltzer does his best to mix all of those ingredients in a balanced recipe, but he doesn't quite bring it off.
The husband and wife lawyers, Jared and Sarah, are locked in a life and death battle as they face off in what appears to be a nothing burglary case, but is really just the surface of murder, intrigue and revenge. Sarah has just found a job as an assistant district attorney after having been fired from her law firm for standing up to the boss in a very public way. After six years she is without a job and her confidence is gone. On her first day at her new job she discovers that budget cuts are very likely to get her on the principle of last in first out. She needs a good case to prosecute in order to show her stuff. But the reader/listener is not sure just what her stuff is. She swings wildly from competent and tough to unable to answer her office phone correctly without instruction even though she has had a full morning of orientation.
Sarah gets a case that looks promising by stealing it from another ADA. A simple burglary case that was intended for the office hotshot becomes hers. Her confidence rises. She learns that the opposing lawyer will be someone from the law firm that fired her and she is ready to go get them. But wait, the defense attorney is changed and now she will face off against her always confident husband who is having some trouble making partner at his law firm. He is chosen by the defendant's backer just because he is the husband of the prosecuting attorney and he is threatened with the death of his wife if he does not win the case. He is scared.
He is told not to tell his wife anything or bad will rain down on them. He keeps quiet. Hiding desperate motives, the couple begins a vicious battle in court and at home. Sarah has a terrible secret too...for in the meantime she is also told by another bad guy that if she loses then her husband will be killed. Properly motivated they set out to try to win the case which keeps getting bigger and bigger as the plot unfolds. Several other characters are involved as the two opposing teams line up to fight it out with secrets, private eyes, spies who know everything they are doing, suspicions about loyalty, momentary lapses of marital loyalty, and life lessons for Sarah by a tough former military ADA.
Character -- the various people presented are interesting if somewhat stereotypical; the main problem that I have is that Sarah and Jared are just not credible. I doubt that either of them would get a passing grade in a basic logic class. It takes them forever to discover the most obvious facts. It stretches credulity to accept that they would not have found a way early on to talk to each other.
Credibility -- stretched to the snapping point by actions that often just do not seem to be "in character". Some of the second tier of characters are sketched with bold strokes and are credible.
Conflict -- Meltzer has set up a powerful conflict between good and evil and keeps us guessing just who is on which side until near the end.
Consistency -- Sarah seems racked by hormones that alternatively turn her into a weepy girl and then into a hard-nosed wife and a do-anything-to-win prosecutor. This inconsistency just does not work for me.
The novel may work better in written form. Scott Brick makes the mistake of trying to produce the various Sarah attitudes by acting the words of the author instead of reading the words. There is a significant difference between an actor and an interpretative reader. When his voice interrupts the flow of the story with attempts to sound like Sarah being wimpy he loses the flow of the story by drawing attention to the reader's voice instead of the words of the work. As a result the novel lurches from potential psychological complexity to actual melodramatic simplicity.
Meltzer is a prolific writer who works in many media. In an interview in Library Journal he remarks, "A few years ago, CBS tried to adapt my novel Dead Even for television. So when I co-created the show Jack & Bobby, it really came from having an idea that we thought would make a better television show than a novel. I'm so proud of that show [which ran only 22 episodes] and feel so lucky to have had it on the air. Knowing that I was a comics geek, D.C. Comics asked me to write for them--I had waited my entire life for such a chance--and thus came Green Arrow, Identity Crisis, and July's Justice League of America with Superman and Batman."
Dead Even might make a good television movie if the writers concentrate on the four ingredients: character, credibility, conflict and consistency.
© 2009 Bob Lane
Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.