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HOTEL WORLD

Long riffs on a theme, presented like a puzzle.

A prizewinner back home, Scotland-born Smith (stories: Like, 1998) offers a verbally high-speed tale of a girl’s death that may touch some but will seem mainly airy to others. It was shortlisted for the 2001 Orange Prize—as it is now for the Booker.

At 19, Sarah Wilby is a promising competitive swimmer, is newly infatuated with a shopgirl but hasn’t yet said anything, and has a new job as chambermaid at the Global Hotel in a smallish English city. Then, just like that, she winks out. She bets a coworker five quid she can squeeze into a dumbwaiter, does it—and falls from top of hotel to bottom. The remainder of the novel—after a section where dead Sarah herself drifts around to looks things over (“I went to the funeral to see who I’d been”)—consists of chapters, often interior monologue-like, about or by people who were near the scene or connected to Sarah. There’s hotel’s deskgirl, Lise, for example, who later falls deathly ill, but first, deathly bored by her job, derides the hotel’s corporate ownership by giving a room to a homeless person; the homeless person has previously had a long chapter of her own (before you know who she is), as will an utterly ditzy journalist who stays in the hotel and thus meets up not only with the homeless lady but with Sarah’s kid sister Clare (none of us yet knows who she is), who’s come to grieve by prying open the dumbwaiter shaft and having a look down. Etc. The pieces do finally come together, yet all remains oddly mechanical, no matter how many words and pages accumulate, and accumulate, and accumulate. One feels as though Smith were taking as long as possible on as little as possible to make things seem as important as possible. “Lise breathed out. Then she breathed in.” “Outside, in the world, people still walked about and did things. For example, they went shopping.”

Long riffs on a theme, presented like a puzzle.

Pub Date: Jan. 15, 2002

ISBN: 0-385-72210-9

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Anchor

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2001

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ABSOLUTE POWER

The mother of all presidential cover-ups is the centerpiece gimmick in this far-fetched thriller from first-novelist Baldacci, a Washington-based attorney. In the dead of night, while burgling an exurban Virginia mansion, career criminal Luther Whitney is forced to conceal himself in a walk-in closet when Christine Sullivan, the lady of the house, arrives in the bedroom he's ransacking with none other than Alan Richmond, President of the US. Through the one-way mirror, Luther watches the drunken couple engage in a bout of rough sex that gets out of hand, ending only when two Secret Service men respond to the Chief Executive's cries of distress and gun down the letter-opener-wielding Christy. Gloria Russell, Richmond's vaultingly ambitious chief of staff, orders the scene rigged to look like a break-in and departs with the still befuddled President, leaving Christy's corpse to be discovered at another time. Luther makes tracks as well, though not before being spotted on the run by agents from the bodyguard detail. Aware that he's shortened his life expectancy, Luther retains trusted friend Jack Graham, a former public defender, but doesn't tell him the whole story. When Luther's slain before he can be arraigned for Christy's murder, Jack concludes he's the designated fall guy in a major scandal. Meanwhile, little Gloria (together with two Secret Service shooters) hopes to erase all tracks that might lead to the White House. But the late Luther seems to have outsmarted her in advance with recurrent demands for hush money. The body count rises as Gloria's attack dogs and Jack search for the evidence cunning Luther's left to incriminate not only a venal Alan Richmond but his homicidal deputies. The not-with-a-bang-but-a-whimper climax provides an unsurprising answer to the question of whether a US president can get away with murder. For all its arresting premise, an overblown and tedious tale of capital sins. (Film rights to Castle Rock; Book-of-the-Month selection)

Pub Date: Jan. 18, 1996

ISBN: 0-446-51996-0

Page Count: 480

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 1995

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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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