Jeffrey Deaver – The Twelfth Card (2005)

Jeffrey Deaver is one of those best-selling American mystery writers whom I had I never read before and therefore The Twelfth Card, at a minimum, fills a gap in my knowledge. In fact I found it quite a surprising book.

The Twelfth Card is the 6th book in the Lincoln Rhyme series. Rhyme’s distinguishing feature is that he is a paraplegic. All his complex forensic investigations therefore have to be conducted from home, although he has a troop of co-workers who assist him, and engage in what might be called field operations. Chief among these is his partner Amelia Sachs. In this particular case a schoolgirl, Geneva Settle, is the target of a ruthless and brilliant professional assassin. Rhyme and his team’s task is to work out why Geneva is being targeted, catch the assassin and protect Geneva.

The surprise to which I referred is that The Twelfth Card (and I know no reason why it should not be treated as reasonably typical of Deaver’s writing) is very technique heavy. I do not mean by this forensic techniques, though there are certainly an abundance of those : an abundance I found tiresome as I always do find forensics tiresome and otiose (and I am not making any point about a modern trend here – the very great Ngaio Marsh’s books become tiresome when, as they almost invariably do, they become forensic). No, it is to the techniques of mystery writing that I refer, and it was those which I was not expecting. Deaver has a whole battery of tricks at his disposal and he puts them to very considerable use. Time and time again the reader is completely mislead. This is repeatedly true of the main plot-line – there are a number of false endings – but also of various sub-plots. Achieving these effects requires great discipline and precise control of the use of language. Deaver pulls off his tricks again and again so that the reader is never really on certain ground. Specific examples would obviously constitute Spoilers, but in general the tendency of the tricks is towards false identities – our perception of a particular character is shown to be completely wrong. But they can also be situations and the most memorable of all for me comprises one such: it is a reversal of expectations which genuinely stunned me. In fact it is these various surprises which keep the reader constantly on the back foot which are ultimately far more satisfying than the genuine revelation of the book’s main plot. Not that the latter is unsatisfactory; it has a delightfully political edge to it and ties in very nicely to some themes Deaver has been working on through the book. Because another aspect of the plot is the fact that it appears the attempts on Geneva’s life may be connected to research she was carrying out on one of her ancestors, Charles Singleton a freed slave, and what happened to him in 1868.

In fact Deaver disguises the fact that this book is above all a technical feat with various overlaying features. We have the already discussed forensics. But there is also a fair amount of history, a fair amount of sociology (of Harlem in particular here), and various characters sub-stories ,most importantly Geneva’s with some lengthy scenes from her high-school life. All of these are competent enough but they tend to be either somewhat arid or, in the case of the last, a bit forced. And I would certainly not want to pretend that The Twelfth Card is without weaknesses. The  prose is bland, the psychology fairly rudimentary and the characterisation average. Yet for all that such is Deaver’s mastery of mystery technique, which is demonstrated again and again, I have to admit that almost against my will I was impressed. I had not expected anything like this and encountering a writer who is genuinely in command of techniques does impress me. It might be argued that the book is somewhat soulless, as even the happy endings feel somewhat of an exercise in technique ; even as they worked on me I was aware of the writer’s intentions to make them work. That may sound absurd so let me re-phrase it. When I feel that technique is being used for the purpose of manipulating my emotions I generally (not always, but generally) become resistant to it. However when technique is being used for purely mystery purposes – not to manipulate the emotion but to lead to shock, surprise, ‘didn’t see that one coming!’, – I am very happy about it. Because these techniques are fact central to the genre. I bang on so often about their absence in much modern-day mystery writing, about the absence of technique, that it would be churlish indeed for me not to applaud when I find a writer who has the whole box of tricks. I am not saying I will rush out and read more Deaver – he is not either weighty or entertaining enough for that – but I would certainly not be averse to reading more.