There’s an interesting story lurking somewhere in Taylor Smith’s Liar’s Market, but the way it’s told seriously undermines the book’s effectiveness.
Carrie MacNeil is the young wife of CIA official Drummond MacNeil. One day her husband disappears, leaving behind suspicions that he was involved in selling information to enemy parties. The FBI brings Carrie in for questioning. They inform her they believe her husband was involved in the murder of a CIA informant in Hong Kong. In addition there’s another murder, one of a student outside the American embassy in London. The CIA believes the target of that murder was supposed to be Carrie.
That’s really all I can reveal about the story because of the book’s odd structure. More than half of the book moves between Carrie’s interrogation and flashbacks to these events as they unfolded. It’s slow, it’s dull, and it’s fairly pointless. Smith has already told us that Carrie’s husband is going to disappear. There’s no reason to spend more than half the book plodding along to that foregone conclusion. The reader doesn’t learn anything that useful. Instead the book just seems to be treading water until the real story actually begins. In the end, this results in a rushed and unconvincing climax. A romance appears out of nowhere, there are sudden betrayals, and an unsurprising twist that packs no power – and it all happens in the last fifty pages, while more than 200 are spent on the flashbacks. It should be the other way around.
The story is readable but unengaging. Most troublesome was Smith’s habit of laying on the melodrama. This was very noticeable, and very painful, during the retelling of the student’s murder. This is a character with no real significance in the story, who will be forgotten as soon as she’s dead, yet Smith lays on the pathos with the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the head.
“Karen Ann Herman was only nineteen years old, a pretty young student from Maryland with a slim build, shy brown eyes and a thick, nut brown braid that ran down her back nearly to her waist. She’d arrived in Britain only the day before, eagerly anticipating the sights-London Bridge, Buckingham Palace and all the other tourist draws ticked off in her dog-eared guidebook. An innocent abroad. She was only meant to spend ten days in England and then go home to a long, happy productive life. Instead, only thirty-six hours after her plane landed at Heathrow, Karen Ann Herman was cut down in a hail of bullets in rainy Grosvenor Square.”
Can you feel the tragedy? No? How about this: Karen is the only child of two deaf parents. A loving daughter, she planned to spend her life making sure that hearing impaired children had the opportunities her parents never did. The only reason she is at the embassy that day is because her worried parents asked her to go there to register. Or, as the author puts it, “Afterward they would bitterly regret extracting the promise that took Karen to the embassy that day. Had they been a little more worldly, they might not have, but Mr. and Mrs. Hermann had never been out of the country themselves.”
And then there’s her actual death, which plays out on an operatic scale:
“Her thumb was still on her chin, her four fingers waggling limply as she called out in her primal language. To the confused faces, it was probably just random fluttering, but for Karen, it was her first word, rising out of the deepest recesses of her fear and sadness and intense loneliness-Mommy.
“She signed it over and over, a silent cry from long ago, a small child calling mutely in the only language her mother could recognize. But this time, there were no comforting arms to take the little girl up and hold her close to let her know she was safe.
“Then Karen Ann Hermann’s eyes closed for the last time, and her fluttering hand fell still on the wet, hard cobblestone, silenced for all time.
“The sky wept.”
And if that’s not enough to make you feel the tragedy of it all, Smith helpfully adds that Karen’s father suffered a stroke three days after the funeral, leaving him paralyzed and unable to sign. Oh the tragedy! Oh the sorrow! It’s so gratuitous, so manipulative, and so pointless. As soon as he delivers that piece of information, Carrie’s interrogator says, “Yeah, well-anyway-let’s put Karen Hermann back in the file for the moment and move on, shall we?” She isn’t mentioned again. So what was the point of all that? Why spend so much time on an irrelevant secondary character when there are main ones sorely in need of development?
Smith also indulges in plenty of those coy little ending lines that close scenes, like this:
- “Whatever else had been going on, Huxley decided, it seemed MacNeil was in for another routine day at the CIA salt mine, after all.
“He couldn’t have been more wrong.”
- “She shook her head firmly. “No, I don’t think so. It couldn’t happen.”
“Even as the words left her mouth, Carrie had the sinking realization that it sounded like famous last words.”
Liar’s Market is a novel of squandered potential. Uninvolving characters and the author’s style and storytelling choices made it so much less than it could have been.