When Michael Calls, by John Farris, is a suspense novel, first published in 1967 (the 1972 Pocket edition is shown and quoted here). It is a quick little thriller, set in a small Midwestern town. The action starts when an antiques dealer is plagued by calls from her (long-dead) nephew.
These disturbing prank calls soon escalate to violence - and a spate of local authority figures are all killed in bizarre and unpredictable ways. Fortunately for all, a homicide-cop-with-a-tragic-past is also local to the area, and is happy to poke around for a solution.
The solution, like the rest of the book, is entirely unpredictable. Of the book's many flaws, the most aggravating is a repeated reliance on completely unannounced surprises. The detective, Doremus, derives his insight from hints and clues that all occur 'off-screen' - making it completely impossible for the reader to keep up. Although this isn't a particularly complicated thriller (there are only five characters), the desperate rationalization of the detective work is an annoying literary device.
As soon as it became apparent that, as a reader, I wouldn't have a chance at the actual 'mystery', the book quickly lost what little appeal it had. The characters are like little shavings of lettuce - thin, transparent and completely without substance. Doremus is a sad shadow of a quirky detective - his particular low point is when, entirely unprompted, he recounts the sorry tale of his wife's murder to a horrified housewife. Not only is there no reason (or importance) to this, it is such a strikingly abnormal thing to do that the character drops any semblance of being anything besides a plot treadmill.
This laziness continues throughout the book. Although Farris keeps the clues to himself, he bizarrely compensates for the lack of character development with irritating glimpses of insight. Farris doesn't show us anything about Amy (or Doremus) (or Craig) (or Peter), instead he tells us her entire story through the occasional biographical monologue. On a much smaller level, a good example occurs on page 238:
[Doremus] scrambled up, unnecessarily furious with himself for having missed two chancy shots with an unfamiliar handgun.
Not only are we told (not shown) why Doremus missed the shots, but Farris also tells us how to react. Instead of adding more detail to the shooting, or even the choice of handgun, we're caught up to things with the 'unnecessarily'. See, it wasn't Doremus's fault, get it? GET IT?
Farris is a particularly prolific author, but he's a long way from a hack. The Fury is oft-forgotten, but a horror staple and the author's series of goofy Harrison High j.d. books show occasional glimpses of comic genius and quirky social insight. When Michael Calls, however, is a particularly depressed low point. With its paper-thin character development, unexpected twists and lazy language, it feels like Farris got away with binding and printing the first draft to a short story.
Rating: A dial tone. I like bee-related murders and the child psychiatrist that inexplicably blames everything on 'demons')
Tube journeys: 3