Title: This Devil’s Dice
Author: Jackson Spence
Published: 22 August 2011
Genre: psychological thriller, crime and mystery
Source: review copy from author
My Rating: 1/10
This was torture. Never have I slogged through so much purple prose or received so little in comparison to the effort and patience I put in.
Ethan is a 27-year old genius working on revolutionary research for his Master’s degree. He’s offered a lucrative proposition by the Baron, a ridiculously wealthy and very shady Russian who owns half the city (we’re not told which city, but it’s clearly first-world). Ethan takes the Baron up on his offer in order to escape the confines of university and the frugal lifestyle he’s been living. He also plans to dump his gorgeous girlfriend Olivia, an “imposter” who he’s only been dating because she looks like his ex-girlfriend, the woman he wants to track down and win back.
Clearly, Ethan is a complete and utter jackass, but not only because of the way he treats Olivia. He is also the narrator who spews forth most of the novel’s very purple prose and for this you will loathe him. Ethan is excessively arrogant, whiny and pretentious. He is the kind of person who won’t use the word ‘laboratory’ when he could call it a “pyretic Pyrex paradise”, or say that a girl has light brown eyes when he could describe them as “[t]awny terra cotta whole wheat toast coloured eyes”. Seriously, this is the kind of rubbish he utters:
Hazy recognition rose up in a mushroom cloud of atomic vapour, a fiery plume of masochistic Mexican flavour, and washed up just as quickly on the shore of certainty.
Her silver bangled hands had taunted me, flaunting their ability to ask questions in the form of fusillades;
The spirit of your soul is slack. Your self is a stale enigma. I stock stereotypes to sustain my solipsistic strut, drawn like a sonar around the sauna of your smoky mirrors. (These are just a few lines from a particularly dreadful paragraph using as many words starting with ‘s’ as possible.)
The authors – Michelle Jackson and Stuart Spence, hence Jackson Spence – rampantly abuse alliteration, similes, and metaphors, even if it means that their descriptions become senseless. They also went nuts with pretentious and irrelevant passages describing food and drink (the Baron is a glutton for ultra-gourmet food and the finest drinks, like a 1907 champagne rescued from a decades-old shipwreck), obscure artworks, architecture, etc. We have to learn all about Ethan’s good friend Flo, an amalgamation of black stereotypes. He’s an obese black gangster with a heart of gold, covered in bling, always eating, and only able to converse overstated gangster rapper style: “Whatcha tink of ma bling? 24 caratzz. 24 diamondzzz. I’z be pimpin’ now. Flashy, yeah? Dem felines dig it.”
Yes, really, although I have to admit that Flo was at least amusing sometimes, even if much of that information about him was unnecessary. With this kind of writing clogging up the novel, the plot could only move at a glacial pace, at least until the end, when it suddenly gets wrapped up very quickly. At the start, I kept wondering when the hell something was going to happen and if Ethan would ever stop whining about how nice and beautiful his girlfriend was. Very little happens in the first half, and we don’t even get to the main part of the plot as mentioned in the tagline and the blurb – how Ethan’s research is responsible for the “evolution of crime”, and leads to some gruesome murders around the city. The “evolution of crime” is certainly a drawcard, and yet the authors keep the subject of Ethan’s research a complete secret until the second half. I have no idea why. It has no real impact as a surprise, although it’s one of only interesting things in the novel and should have been expanded upon. But rather than make the most of this research – which really would be revolutionary, and not only for crime – it’s treated almost as an aside, just one more piece of information among countless others.
Similarly, we don’t hear about any of the murders until after we learn about Ethan’s research. Even then, they’re detailed in little shrink-wrapped sections that are more like reports describing the victims, their relation to the Baron (it’s no secret that he’s responsible), and why he wanted them out of the way. I say “shrink-wrapped” because the crimes have almost no effect on the rest of the narrative. None of the characters hear about them, so it doesn’t change the content of the story. Ethan goes on whining about Olivia, longing for his ex-girlfriend, hanging out with Flo, and generally being boring and pretentious. The Baron, who is co-ordinating all the murders, doesn’t speak about them.
Since the plot drew me to this book in the first place, I was particularly disappointed in its complete failure to entertain. Another reason I wanted to read it was that both the authors are South African, and I try to explore local genre fiction every now and then. As it turns out, there’s nothing South African about This Devil’s Dice, but I don’t consider that a criticism of the novel. However, I did get really annoyed when I came across this demeaning stereotype about some residents in Ethan’s apartment block:
there were a couple of South Africans living on the top floor; Zulus, I think. The elevator was always covered in various kinds of livestock shit. Could they have been using the animals for sacrifices?
These Zulus also disturb residents with their chanting. Seriously? Why write that? I don’t think that SA authors have a duty to write fiction with a local flavour, but why give your countrymen an insulting little cameo, especially when it has nothing to do with the plot? What is the point?
Weirdly enough, I felt that the intended highlight of the novel was actually the writing, characters, and descriptions of stuff, rather than the plot. It’s weird because all those things almost always suck and it’s hard not to feel that the authors are just showing off (and failing dismally). Here and there you’ll find a surprisingly vivid description, an intriguing character trait, or an interesting bit of information (there was some neurobiological stuff that I liked) but these tend to be lost amidst the sort of junk I mentioned earlier. Any writing pretentions are further ruined by multiple errors and a tendency for the POV to switch, unannounced, from first-person to third-person omniscient. I even stumbled across a dictionary definition for the word ‘irony’ and a recipe for Minced Mutton Patties, both of which seemed to have been copied and pasted into the text by mistake. What the hell? Didn’t the authors read over this before making it available to the public? Perhaps not, because I don’t know how someone could read This Devil’s Dice and imagine that others would enjoy it. Avoid, avoid, avoid.
Of course, you’re free to ignore my advice and buy a copy of This Devil’s Dice