Lowe Magnusson returns to San Francisco with a mythical amulet that he recently unearthed in Egypt. Hadley Bacall is sent to secure it from him for her father, a museum curator. Hadley’s father had four crossbar pieces that went with the amulet, and he wants to assemble the whole shebang. Unfortunately, Hadley’s late mother bequeathed two obstacles to this quest. She hid the four pieces all over San Francisco, leaving riddles telling their locations, and she was haunted by specters called Mori – specters which now follow Hadley. Hadley and Lowe join forces to put the amulet back together, and their lust-at-first-sight grows in to something more along the way. Despite the original premise, issues with writing, issues with plot, and superficial characters kept Grim Shadows from living up to its potential.
In any interwar Egypt adventure, the hero will be in the shadow of Indiana Jones, and I felt like the author threw every superlative at Lowe to try to make him hold up. He’s a rough-and-tumble adventurer, smooth liar, antiquities forger, linguist, Egyptologist, ladies’ man, and beloved friend to a disabled child. Oh, and Swedish, because dropping Gaelic endearments into conversation is so 1990s. Lowe just felt, to me, more like a character type than a person in his own right.
The author seems to expect me not to mind how unsavory Lowe’s actions are. The historian in me winced as Lowe pillaged temples to sell antiquities. Although his forgeries often permitted the originals to be in museums, that was never the point – he only does it to double the sales volume. Which is itself frustrating, since Lowe comes from the wealthy bootlegger family introduced in the previous book Bitter Spirits. I never really understood why Lowe couldn’t just take family money. After all, why is someone else’s bootlegger money less ethical than your antiquities forgery money, especially when your forgery career is endangering people around you? Can you sympathize with this man?
[Lowe is warned]“‘The object’s purpose is no myth. That kind of magic is dangerous… [Hadley’s] father cannot be allowed near it. If you manage to find the crossbars and rejoin them to the base, under no circumstances whatsoever can you allow him to possess it.’
Unless he was waving a hundred-grand check around… Lowe was still alive, and he needed that cash.”
Plus, it’s inconsistent. When a man says nasty things about Hadley, Lowe smashes his hand in a filing drawer: “at least three [fingers] were broken, judging from the grotesque way they bent back at the knuckles. Bright red blood pooled in his palm.” Let’s leave aside for a second the fact that it is completely unacceptable to smash someone’s hand because you don’t like what they say. The man (rightfully) threatens to have Lowe arrested, and Lowe says, “What’s my last name? Heard of my family?” Taking money from Big Bro is unacceptable, but hiding behind thuggery is?
And Hadley? I do like ice-queen characters, and Hadley is interesting in her struggle against a patriarchal museum environment. Her struggle with the Mori, however, is under-developed. Although we’re told she’s intelligent, she makes nothing but inept relationship decisions. Way too much word count is spent on Hadley and Lowe’s feelings of lust. Since apparently it’s hard to come up with character-based reasons to keep two consenting adults from having the sex they’re clearly desperate to have, the author resorts to interruptions like kisses disrupted by foghorns or the maid walking in on a tryst. This leaves Hadley and Lowe constantly obsessing over the broken encounters and whether or not to resume them, often with really inappropriate timing. For instance, while on their quest, Hadley “wished she would’ve spent the ride over pressing him for more information on his plan instead of pining over him like a lovesick girl.” I wrote in the margin in large black letters “SO DO I.”
That sentence also provides an example of a recurring grammar mistake: the author seems allergic to perfect tenses. “Wished she would’ve” should be “wished she had.” In another scene, “Why did she say that?” should be “Why had she said that?” At one point, a creature is “different than” another creature. Where was the editor?
I laughed out loud several times, but not for the right reasons. I know just about any sex scene can sound ridiculous quoted out of context, but these examples were equally weird in context, ripping me right out of the scenes:
While Lowe kisses Hadley: “‘Hadley,’ he murmured, kissing her cheek, one eyelid, then the next – like he was some erotic priest administering a blessing with his mouth. ‘Hadley, Hadley, Hadley.’”
1) In the movie-within-a-movie in Singing in the Rain, Don Lockwood kisses his way up Lina Lamont’s arm while declaring “I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you!” The preview audience member shakes his head. “Did someone get paid to write that dialogue?”
2) Not “like he was,” “as if he were.”
3) Is an eyelid an erogenous zone for some people? If so, do they get off on contact lens fittings?
4) Descriptions of priests and mouth blessings do not make me think of sexytimes. They make me think of the Catholic molestation scandal.
During sex: “Her legs wantonly parted like the Red Sea in front of Moses.” I think this is Egyptologist for “Hadley is on the rag.”
There is an interesting concept in this book, and I did love the 1920s San Francisco setting, which was well-developed and reasonably detailed. But the book is too slick and superficial. I think it would have been an excellent video game, because the conventions of that medium allow for implausible quests, action sequences interspersed with dialogue cutscenes, and shallow characters in shallow relationships. As a movie, which would omit the mental lusting and narration issues, it might have been at least an adequate version of the fast-paced, sexy caper that I think the author was going for. Unfortunately, it’s a book.