Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Tales From the Discount Bin: Death Sentence

Picking up a handful of months after the ending of Death Wish, and beginning in an entirely new locale, Death Sentence feels more like a continuing chapter than a standard cash-in sequel. In almost every way, this book is an extension of the first novel, both in events and concepts.

After Paul Benjamin's daughter, reduced to a catatonic state by the attack that started everything in the first novel, dies as an indirect result of that attack(the actual reasons are not very clear, and not explained in the book), he leaves New York and takes a job in Chicago. As one character points out, it's an odd choice; Chicago(at least at the time) has a higher crime rate than New York. Of course, we the reader understand that this suits Paul just fine, as it gives him ample opportunity to continue his nocturnal habit of gunning down criminals. And it isn't too long before he's back at it, buying a new gun and making plans and false identities before he even begins his job in Chicago. Paul is still meticulously careful about his crusade, using false names when he purchases his guns(which he buys across state lines), and renting an office in a rundown neighborhood as a safe house for his guns, so that if police ever do suspect him, they won't find any incriminating evidence in his apartment. But cracks are beginning to show, and things are starting to fall apart around him.

Paul befriends an attractive prosecuting attorney, initially as a way to have access to gossip about how the town's power structure and legal system works, but it isn't long before the relationship grows into something more. And it's this relationship, and the possibility of love for the first time since his family was murdered, that begins to chip away at Paul's resolve. Where once he was able to focus everything on his crusade, and bottle his emotions up, Paul now finds himself wounding instead of killing, and horrified at the spiralling chaos his vigilantism is inspiring. The crime rate may be going down, but more and more citizens are putting themselves in harms way to take the law into their own hands. Shopkeepers and old ladies are refusing to stand by as criminals mug them, and have taken to standing up to the thugs, often with fatal results. And somewhere out on the streets of Chicago is a copycat vigilante, something that doesn't seem to concern him until he begins to see the error of his own ways.

While Death Wish was spare and neutral, choosing not to judge Paul's acts, there is no denying which side of the argument Death Sentence falls on. Brian Garfield was fairly public about his dismay over the violence in the Death Wish movie, so it's possible he wrote Death Sentence as a reaction to that, a clarification of his values and intentions. Almost every other chapter is a news story pulled from a(fictional) Chicago newspaper, recounting Paul's actions, and the ripple effect he creates. There are many points when characters will have heated debates over what should be done with our limping legal system, and Paul's own thoughts become particularly noxious. This book ups the body count significantly, and where the righteousness of the violence in Death Wish was rarely specifically questioned, it's obvious Paul is off his rocker here. It begins to be unclear as to whether or not to root for a man who guns down kids who steal a portable television from an apartment, or who prowls outside of the juvenile court house so that he can follow and murder teenagers who got off the hook. In Death Wish there was a sense that Paul really was helping, that although his actions were detestable, his heart was in the right place, and he really did make New York safer with his string of murders. In Death Sentence we're never certain that any of these people deserves it, and it becomes clear how Lone West Justice can slide easily into fascism.

All of this leads up to an uncertain Paul Benjamin trying to hang up his spurs, as it were, and a violent and bloody meeting with his copycat vigilante. It's a little too convenient the manner in which Paul finds his copycat, but the book seems aware of this and casts it's own doubts upon it. As a hard boiled thriller, Death Sentence may lack some of the straightforward punch of Death Wish, but it's still a fascinating character study. As much as the book focuses on Paul's own deteriorating mental state, it's much less interested in the personal cost of vigilantism than the social cost. It could almost be argued that Paul could go on indefinitely with no adverse effects to his own psyche, but what he inflicts on society is far more dangerous than the rising crime rates. All of this inside a gripping, action story that would entertain any fans of pulp fiction(the genre, not the movie, although movie fans may enjoy this too, they aren't mutually exclusive), with or without the social commentary.

I guess it's no surprise when I say I really enjoyed these books. I've looked over Brian Garfield's bibliography, and I'd like to see what else this man has accomplished, but his books sure sound unappealing to me. I did notice he wrote the book version of Hopscotch, and although I hear it is radically different from the movie, I'll probably slide that into the pile for later consumption.

Also, one final note: There's a movie version of Death Sentence in theatres at the moment, from the director of the original Saw. IMDB, and film posters, attribute the source novel to Brian Garfield, although I don't see how this is possible. The plot of the movie concerns Kevin Bacon killing his son's murderer, and attracting the attention of the large street gang whose member he killed. There's nothing even remotely like this in the novel, so I can only imagine they had the rights to the book, loved the name and the revenge theme, and tried to cash in on whatever clout the book has. Which I can't imagine would be that much, but who knows.

Up next: It looks like this will be Death Wish week(or, I dunno, couple of days at least), because the two books have prompted me to go and rent the movie and it's 4 sequels. I've made it through the first one so far, but will probably be writing about all of them at the same time. It may take me a few days to get to it, but it will most likely be before I finish my next book.

The next book is, as I said before, A Brand New World, by Ray Cummings.

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