- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 1, 2006

18 SECONDS

By George D. Shuman,

Simon & Schuster, $23,

308 pages

REVIEWED BY JOHN GREENYA

Whenever anyone writes a thriller with a truly creepy villain, someone will make the comparison to Thomas Harris, creator of uber-creep Hannibal Lecter.

Such comparisons are seldom apt, much less accurate, but when it was done in this case, by the trade journal “Booklist,” it wasn’t really a stretch. In fashioning the murderous Earl Oberlein Sykes, first-time author, and former D.C. cop, George D. Shuman has produced a memorable bad actor. And the rest of the book is also memorable, if not on all counts then certainly for the pace of the action.

I must admit upfront I wasn’t particularly taken with the central gimmick of the novel, which is that a young woman, blinded by a traumatic childhood accident, has the unique ability to “see,” when she holds the hand of a dead person, what that person saw in the last 18 seconds of life. Obviously, this comes in very handy, no pun intended, in the homicide business. So when Sherry Moore’s “gift” becomes known, and the media discovers her, many people seek her out, even some in law enforcement who want her help, on an undercover basis, in cases where “all else has failed”.

When several young women, almost all of them stunners (a most appropriate word as the killer uses a taser to immobilize his victims) turn up missing and then dead, the police in the resort town of Wildwood, New Jersey are baffled.

I almost wrote “haven’t a clue,” but they do have clues, several of them; they just can’t, or don’t, make the right connections. Then Kelly Lynch-O’Shaughnessy, a newly-minted lieutenant whose father had been chief, a fact which causes one male-chauvinist-pig sergeant to treat her badly, gets a call from John Payne, an out-of-town detective who eventually introduces her to Sherry Moore. Together, the Misunderstood Cop and the Blind Seer attempt to solve the crimes and catch the killer. The only problem is that he catches them first.

What surprised me about this book was that, given how many story elements this neophyte novelist employed, he did such a good job of tying them all together by the end. For example: Kelly’s husband has “strayed” (such a nice way of putting infidelity) which may or may not be a result of her job-related pressures, so she dallies with the handsome District Attorney; the unhappily-married John Payne is not-so-secretly in love with the gorgeous Sherry Moore (did I neglect to say she is even more of a stunner than any of the dead girls?) who loves him back, secretly; one of the victims is the daughter of a major businessman in town who, with the secret help of the Kelly-hating sergeant, is putting unfair pressure on the chief; two of the suspects are local youths, one a former sports hero left brain-damaged (in an accident caused by Earl Sykes), whose has a job picking up trash on the beach and boardwalk, and the other a piece of human trash who sells drugs to (and seduces) teens; and Sykes, the real killer, who just got out of jail after three decades, has only a year to live because he contracted cancer while growing up in a trailer located in the middle of a Superfund site. Whew!

That’s an awful lot of stuff to work out by the final chapter, but George Shuman proves himself up to the task. Even more impressive is that while he’s taking care of all that business, he’s building suspense by bringing the truly evil Earl Sykes on stage just often enough to keep us appalled ? and hooked.

A creative writing teacher would probably run out of red ink indicating all the things Shuman does wrong ? such as his fondness for opening chapters with sentences like these: “A breeze stirred the ground, raising hills of brittle leaves in tiny whirlpools that crossed the yard and settled in similar mounds nearer the shed.”; or, “Dirt devils danced on a sea of brome, jagged shards of lightning blazing intermittent on the charcoal sky.” Yet I can’t think of many creative writing teachers who could have paced a thriller more effectively. As a reader, I found Shuman’s prose much less interesting when he was being “writerly.”

When he got back to the process of law enforcement, the self-consciousness disappeared and the narrative began to flow smoothly and well.

In a Q&A; provided by the publisher, Shuman says that years ago he signed up for a creative writing course at American University, but dropped out after a single class. “If anything,” he says, “I would credit my law enforcement experience for how I write.” The author, who in 20 years on the Metropolitan Police Department worked narcotics and then internal affairs, says that “place” is what most interests him as a writer: ” … to me, place is everything. I first see place, I imagine the mood, then I drop my characters in to see what they will do.” I was disappointed to read that he has no plans to write about Washington, DC. I don’t think George Pelecanos has anything to worry about, but I’d still like to see how Shuman would handle our fair city.

In that same interview, he also said that his family vacationed in Wildwood, New Jersey when he was a teenager. “I’ll never forget walking back to the hotel at night, leaving the carnival atmosphere of the boardwalk, clopping south on the boardwalk into darkness. Your footsteps get suddenly hollow.

You become aware of people walking in the shadows, interrupting the line of white surf that marks the end of the dark beach. There was something a little eerie in all that darkness. It was an ‘anything could happen here’ kind of place.”

Many years later, George Shuman made something happen there, and I submit that after reading “18 Seconds” you may never walk a dark stretch of boardwalk again without quickening your pace.

In that same interview, Shuman says he didn’t write this book with a sequel in mind, “?but having created Sherry, I am loath to leave her on the shelf,” so we can expect to encounter the comely Ms. Moore again. As for other venues, perhaps it’s the “Silence of the Lambs” syndrome, but I kept thinking movie-movie-movie as I read, and I have to assume the author had similar thoughts. However, if “18 Seconds” does become a movie, I’m not sure I’d want to see it at the beach.

John Greenya is a Washington writer.


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