Saturday, December 31, 2016

Dead Eyes by Stuart Woods

There’s a moment in the thirteenth chapter of Dead Eyes where it looks like the reader is in for the kind of tawdry fun that you get from watching a giallo horror film. The almost completely blind actress Chris Callaway is listening to some books on tape when suddenly the cassette player turns off and her stalker is sitting across from her:

The whisper began, low and sibilant: “Chrissychrissychrissychrissychrissy.” It grew louder, then stopped.

Chris raised her head and opened her eyes. “Who are you and what do you want?” was all she could think of to say.

“I want everyone to know you’re mine,” the voice whispered.

Then when Chris tries to stand up her stalker presses her back down and tattoos a rose on the back of her left hand. That is fantastically trashy and naturally it raised my hopes.

Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there.

Stuart Woods is a very popular writer, and Dead Eyes is written like a popular novel. This means that there’s not much in the way of characterization, but there is plenty of action, even if the action is completely implausible and in order to achieve that action the characters must behave in astonishingly stupid ways.

Chris Callaway is on the verge of major stardom thanks to getting the female lead in a mid-budget artistic western film. She’s also selling the house she shared with her ex-husband, building a new home on the beach in Malibu, and she has a fabulous and tough gay hairdresser friend to hang out with. The only real problem in her life is that she’s started getting notes dropped directly into her mail slot— her actual home address that no one knows anything about, other than a few catalogs but everyone used to get catalogs back in the mid-90s (Dead Eyes was first published in the innocent if less enlightened year of 1994). The notes, signed “Admirer,” begin as uncomfortable and quickly escalate to creepy. Then she starts getting roses, dozens and dozens of roses, sent to her home. Then ten pounds of chocolate. (At one point Admirer tells Chris that she doesn’t have to worry about staying in shape anymore because he’s going to take care of her.)

Following a read-through of the final draft of the script, the film’s director and star tell Chris that she’s so good they’re going to add in a new scene for her and bump her up in the billing. (Somehow I guess the director and star of the movie have the power to change the billing on a film when [hopefully!] all that was settled by the suits and set by contracts long before any rehearsals would start?) Now Chris is really on her way, so she takes her fabulous and tough gay hairdresser friend, Danny Devere, to walk through her unfinished Malibu home. While showing off to Danny on the second floor, Chris jumps up and down on some scaffolding (WAT?) and the scaffolding snaps and Chris plummets to the beach below, her body landing mostly on sand but her head striking some rocks, jarring that part of her brain responsible for sight, or something. There is a medical explanation given, but the point is that Chris is now mostly blind— she can see some light, but people appear mostly as blobs. (And by the way, did the movie studio put into her contract that she shouldn’t be showing off at any building sites? Presumably they knew she was building a new house; why wouldn’t they put in her contract that she couldn’t actually go onto that property while the film was being made?)

Anyway, she’s dropped from the movie and one day while she’s home she comes to believe that someone—Admirer!—is in her home with her. When the police come by to investigate she pretends to be sighted (she doesn’t want it getting out that she’s blind or that she’s being stalked because she’ll never work in this town again if people know) while talking to them. And the police are so unobservant that they can’t tell. I’m sure that was a sly commentary on the efficacy of the po-po. Now a handsome young Beverly Hills police detective, who represents the BHPD’s entire threat management unit, is on the case. His name is Jon Larsen, and he is, in his own words, “one of the more stupid police detectives in the western hemisphere.” (Chapter 61) Actually, he’s not giving himself enough credit—he is probably the stupidest police detective in the world.

But Chris immediately likes him, because he doesn’t call her by her first name on their first meeting. You see, according to Chris, being famous means that people feel “entitled” to you, and are always coming to up to Chris and calling her by her first name. But Larsen calls her “Miss Callaway,” until Chris tells him, “Please call me Chris; the whole world does.” (Chapter 7) Larsen calls her Chris and gives her incredibly stupid advice, such as when Admirer sits down at the seat across from her in the outdoor seating area of a Santa Monica restaurant and just watches her for a few seconds then moves in close and whispers directly into her ear “This is not a game.” Larsen tells her it’s not a threat, it’s just an expression of how strongly her stalker feels about her.

Then he takes her out for a Sunday fun day of private gun training at the end of Mulholland Drive (the '90s were so different!), all the while followed and watched by Admirer. Larsen sees him watching them through binoculars and shrugs it off. Then he gets a lead on someone who might know Admirer and drives Chris to Palm Springs and leaves her in the car alone while he goes in to talk to someone for about half an hour. Of course Admirer shows up. Then Larsen discovers that Chris’s home is being bugged but instead of removing the bug he decides to leave it so that they can selectively “leak” information they want Admirer to have. This important plot point is not only never mentioned again but, after this scene during which they’re careful to go out on the back patio to talk, they go right back to normal, discussing important information in Chris’s home as a matter of routine.

On the flimsiest evidence Larsen decides that one particular suspect has to be Admirer, then concentrates all his efforts on that person. He brings Chris to his house where they attempt to have sex before Admirer throws a large rock through the window, sending glass shards flying onto the bed and the floor. Then he takes Chris and Danny to a hotel for dieters near the beach. Here they do finally have sex, but they undress in the apartment’s living room, leaving both their guns out there while they frolic on the twin bed in the bedroom—and Admirer breaks in and leaves them a message in lipstick! Larsen decides to take Chris back to his house because, as he puts it, “I’ve begun to think he’ll find us anywhere, so what the hell?” (Chapter 52) Then Larsen finally thinks to check for tracking devices on their cars and of course finds them on his and hers and Danny’s—but he doesn’t tell Danny, letting him drive around with a tracker (this after Danny was nearly killed when Admirer punctured a hole in his previous vehicle’s hydraulic brake line).

Meanwhile, Larsen gets a call from the parents of a previous stalking victim that he allegedly helped. Their daughter, Helen, has disappeared. Upon hearing this news, to his credit, “Larsen felt a trickle of apprehension run down his bowels.” (Chapter 48) In another nice giallo-like touch, poor Helen ends up decapitated, her head left in a park but her body tied to a chair in Larsen’s home. Larsen feels bad but he absolves himself of any responsibility because Helen’s stalker had gone dormant or something—but given Larsen’s handling of Chris’s stalking the reader is probably not inclined to be so charitable.

For some reason Larsen is still in charge of everything, and allowed to come up with a cockamamie plan to bait Admirer—the person they think is Admirer—into attacking Chris at her new home. But neither Chris nor Danny (who rightfully calls Larsen a moron a couple of times in the book) think to check on the housing arrangements and beach access that are so integral to his plan. Chris invites Larsen to move into her new home with her, which means she’s contracted the form of Stockholm syndrome for stupidity (and she still can’t see him, so she can’t say she’s dazzled by this dummy’s good looks).

As I’ve said, there are occasional flashes of inspired tawdriness, but I’m afraid that Woods didn’t trust himself to go all the way with the nastiness. He could have had a sort of splatter version of Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark (the fact that I think this is a brilliant idea and want to write it myself gives you some idea why my own book sales are where they are but please buy The Misadventure of Dreama and the Rednecks by all means, hurry!) but instead he focused on—well, actually given Woods’s sales he focused on exactly what he needed to focus on. Dead Eyes is a book about a successful woman who overcomes physical, professional, and criminal obstacles, and finds love in the process. In other words, it’s a  work of popular fiction and it's sold tons and tons of copies, so what the hell?

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