John David Bethel
In March of this year, I read and reviewed John David Bethel’s Blood Moon, a fictionalized account of a brutal Miami extortion attempt. Mr. Bethel was also kind enough to do an interview with me, the inaugural interview of this blog.
Evil Town is Bethel’s first novel, set in Washington, D.C. and inspired by his long career in political communications. The book bears both the signs of a first-time novelist and an experienced political operative.
The novel begins in haste–two murders in the first few chapters. Rather than a ‘whodunit,’ this is a ‘whydunit.’ I found this refreshing, and I did very much want to find out the full extent of the antagonist’s villainy. This was not so much because of my care for the victims, who were dead before I even got to know them, or for the hardly-characterized “good guys,” but because I was wondering how such bold crimes would unfold without the story becoming totally unmoored from reality. That likeness to reality is one of the book’s strengths.
Evil Town has been lavished with praise by those who have spent their careers in D.C. as an accurate–and condemning–portrait of how business goes down in Washington. While I have only visited Washington as a tourist, Bethel’s description of the view across the Potomac from Virginia brought me right back to the city.
West side of the U.S. Capitol, some weeks after first Obama Inauguration, January 2009. Photo courtesy of eighth-grader version of me.
It is these shining moments, found in descriptions and dialogue, that carry the reader’s interest through a jumbled middle. Staged suicide, war crimes in Vietnam, and sugar cane are compelling–if only readers had a better grasp on the information at hand, so they could begin speculating about the full extent of the conspiracy.
There is a plethora of characters, introduced and re-introduced rapidly. Three characters share a last name, but are referred to as “Bremen” sometimes interchangeably in a passage. The nomenclature–switching between names, surnames, professions, and nicknames to describe characters–remains a nagging annoyance for the reader throughout, though by the end of the book readers have gotten to know the most important players well enough to have the names down.
The ending saves the book, bringing compelling exchanges between characters closer together and faster. In these dialogues, the confusion of the middle third of the book is dispelled. Bethel provides a conclusion to the book that is just improbable enough to thrill readers without earning Evil Town classification as a “fantasy” novel.
In light of the ending, I would recommend my readers pack Evil Town in their beach bags. Given that the drama in Washington now reads like a thriller, it may hit a little too close to home. At least there are no Russian agents.
The weaknesses of Evil Town reveal Bethel’s development as a writer by the time of Blood Moon. I criticized and praised Blood Moon for many of the same things I noticed in Evil Town: lack of exposition on characters with whom we are supposed to sympathize; satisfying, intense dialogue to satiate your vigilante justice fantasies; endings that are both unpredictable yet well-suited to their respective plots.
Blood Moon is a much tighter novel, and much easier to follow. This is perhaps in part to the smaller cast of characters and much more intimate plot, but also must be attributed to the author’s increasing focus on his strengths. These strengths are his understanding of readers’ frustrations with the slowness of “the System,” his resolving of plots in ways that deliciously compensate for “the System,” and his warning that quick-and-dirty justice is not, in fact, preferable to the inefficiency of “the System.”
3/5 stars: Not literature, but it sure is fun.
2/5 ‘fraidy cats: Only scary because, if it was reported in the paper, you would believe
every d–n word of it.
1/5 ick-factor: It is the Swamp, but descriptions of literal ooze are hard-to-come-by.