I’ll be taking a blog break till Monday, probably, unless I get a wireless connection in Moorhead and find the time. I’m going up with the Vikings for the Hjemkomst festival. Drop by if you’re in the area, but I won’t be there Sunday.
On Sunday I shoot back south, overshoot my home, and come to rest in Kenyon, Minnesota, my original home town. I’ve been asked to give a short historical talk for a special service. My home church (Hauge Lutheran) has an old stone church, the congregation’s original building (it was built in 1875 and is on the National Register of Historic Places). A service is held there once a year (it used to be in Norwegian, but that’s kind of pointless nowadays). Anyway, I’ll be helping out with that Sunday morning.
I always look forward to Robert K. Tanenbaum’s Karp/Ciampi books, and I can’t say I didn’t enjoy Counterplay. But I see problems in this old, dependable franchise.
Our friend Aitchmark reviewed it here. He thinks Tanenbaum has succumbed to the temptation to try to make every book “bigger” than the last. I see that, and I agree to an extent. But I think I discern a deeper problem.
First, a synopsis: The last couple books have featured Butch Karp’s great nemesis—former New York City District Attorney Andrew Kane, a rich and corrupt man who nearly became mayor of New York. We thought Kane was beaten at the end of the previous book, when his plot to destroy the Catholic Church was unmasked and foiled.
But Kane has escaped from the police, and has made it clear that he is going to a) kill everyone Karp (now District Attorney himself) cares about, and b) perform a major act of terrorism. Security people believe he’s planning to target Russian president Yeltsin on an upcoming visit to the U.S.
You get your money’s worth in entertainment with any Tanenbaum book. He rolls out the beloved stock company of funny, eccentric, well-developed regulars we’ve come to love. The most interesting part of the story for me, actually, was a sub-plot—the cold-case against a millionaire for the murder of his wife, prosecuted by good ol’ Ray Guma, on the basis of a memory recovered by the couple’s son under hypnosis.
But there really is a problem, and I think Tanenbaum needs to do something about it. I think he’s fallen into the Superman Dilemma.
The Superman Dilemma is simple. Once you’ve created a hero who is faster than a speeding bullet, bulletproof himself, inhumanly strong and incredibly smart, what do you do to give him a challenge? Yeah, you’ve got kryptonite, but you can only use that stuff so often before people get bored.
The answer is the Super-Villain. You’ve got to come up with an adversary worthy of his steel skin. Someone who matches him in at least one category, and who is as bad as he is good.
Tanenbaum, over the course of this long series, has gradually loaded the Karp family with a pantheon of super friends. Tran, the former Viet Cong, was the first, I think. He’s a leader of the Asian mob, and will do anything to protect Butch’s wife Marlene, on whom he’s been nursing a crush for years. Then there’s John Jojola, the Taos Indian/Special Forces veteran, who walks unseen and has strange mystical powers. And there’s David Grale, the psychotic who leads and army of the homeless, fighting evil in the city sewers. And there’s daughter Lucy’s new boyfriend, the cowboy Ned, who is (of course) a crack shot and a quick-draw artist. Lucy herself is a language prodigy, which helps in a lot of situations. And Marlene is the Top Gun in Manhattan. She also trains huge attack dogs.
Which means that in real life, a family like the Karps would be safer than the president in the presidential bunker, just giving folks a tour. Thus, for a challenge, we need a super-villain capable of working past all these layers of security.
Andrew Kane has been the super-villain in the last few books, and is again here. And frankly it’s getting to the point where he’s straining credibility. The man is so insane—so filled with hate and yet so omnicompetent, that it’s hard to take him seriously.
Tanenbaum has produced a comic book. A superior comic book, one well worth reading, but a comic book nevertheless.
He needs to drop the end-of-the-world scenarios, kill off some of the family’s protectors, and get back to writing stories about people we recognize. There’s plenty of ordinary evil in the world for a big-city D.A. to fight.
Even Superman shouldn’t fly out of sight.