[This poorly written mystery is the latest babytown frolics.]

Author: Will Lavender

2011, Simon & Schuster

Filed under: Mystery

Dominance is one of those books, like a bad one-night stand, that fills you with shame every time you remember another detail. Oh, and the flashbacks, I’ll think to myself, even now. Just awful. What was I thinking?

The plot goes like this: in 1994, Richard Aldiss—a professor who’s been convicted of two murders—teaches a literature class from jail by remote CCTV. The purpose of that class is to find the identity of a mysterious author named Paul Fallows, whose two puzzlesome books hold secrets, and might also hold the key to Aldiss’s freedom.

One of the students, Alex Shipley, does just that. She unlocks the mystery of Paul Fallows, which leads her to the real killer and helps her free Professor Aldiss. Fifteen years later, members of the “night class,” as the CCTV Fallows seminar is called, are being killed in the same manner as those two long-ago murders. It’s up to Alex to reconvene the members of the night class, and figure out which one of them is the killer.

The novel—the present timeline, at least—is a fairly basic locked-room mystery, with a lit-class face on it, presumably because Will Lavender was a literature professor. But none of this was why I started reading Dominance. Instead, it was this detail that seduced me: the way these students engage with the Fallows books, the way they unlock the secrets therein, is by playing a game called the Procedure.

What does such a game look like? How does it work? How does a book function as a puzzle? This, rather than who killed so-and-so, was the mystery that led me to pick up Dominance. I should’ve known better.

[Minor spoilers ahead regarding the Procedure and how dumb it is.]

Lavender stalls for half the book before he finally admits, with what must be a tinge of embarrassment, how the Procedure is played: you act out the books. You memorize the books and then you act them out. Ostensibly, this reveals things that you wouldn’t understand just by reading the books.

In practice, it doesn’t work. The clues Alex gets from the novels all come directly from the books themselves. A smudge on a page points to a line about “Plato’s liquid gold,” and she deduces the location of her next clue from that. She gets nothing, ever, from playing the Procedure.

It seems that Lavender wanted the Procedure to be a seductive danger to his characters. But it’s only seductive if there’s something to be gained (which there isn’t), and it’s only dangerous if the books contain scenes of violence or assault that the players must then act out. The two books they study in the night class don’t have any dangerous scenes, and so most of the potential impact of the Procedure is lost.

Likewise, many of Lavender’s ideas and plot mechanisms feel like improbable occurrences at best and cheap authorial machinations at worst. Lavender seems to know this, so his characters spend an inordinate amount of time giving laborious explanations or defenses of the weirdnesses in this world.

For instance, here’s old Dean Fisk explaining how he let Aldiss teach the night class in the first place:

“I wanted Fallows found and the mystery solved. I needed it to end. … [Aldiss] told me about a class he’d been thinking about, and I paid off the board of trustees at Jasper to make it happen. I had so much power at this college that no one challenged me.”

This little paragraph showcases the fundamental problems of Dominance. Unconvincing explanations only draw attention to Lavender’s faulty logic rather than resolving it. Did Dean Fisk have so much power that nobody challenged him? Or did he have to pay off board members so that they’d let him have this class? Never mind the fact that Aldiss knows the identity of Fallows the entire time, and could have simply, you know, told Fisk.

More tellingly, all this bluster focuses on ironing out the worldly details of an action rather than illuminating the psychology and motivation behind that action. Personally, I can believe a college would let a weird class be taught. The more important question is: why did Dean Fisk want Fallows found? Why did he want the mystery solved? Lavender glosses over Fisk’s motive entirely, just one of the many times he ignores questions of motivation in favor of logistical schematics. It makes for an ultimately unsatisfying mystery.

To pump up the suspense of a limp plot, Lavender spends a lot of time drawing out simple plot twists, or having characters who already know everything (there are several) give ominous portents when they could just be telling everybody what’s going on. Here’s chapter 33 in its entirety:

“Who did this?” Keller asked. “Who killed our friends, Dean Fisk?”

The dean looked ahead, his eyes pausing for a moment. “Isn’t it clear by now, Mr. Keller?”

There was something in that empty gaze. Something insistent. Pleading.

“No,” Alex said.

“Isn’t it clear?” the man repeated, his dead eyes wandering over them all, moving from face to face. “What’s happening to each of you? Isn’t it obvious what he’s doing?”

Um, no. Honestly, it’s not even clear who “he” is. Of course, it’s not supposed to be, because all 71 words of that chapter are meant to be nothing more than an extra few bars of dramatic music.

Worst of all is the hamfisted way Lavender structures the novel. The narrative switches back and forth between “present day” and the night class in 1994. Which means that we see Alex track down Fallows’s identity (which turns out to be absurdly disappointing) intercut with scenes of her trying to discover who the new killer is.

There’s a slight problem with this: we already know what happened in 1994. Alex found the real murderer and set Aldiss free. We don’t know quite all the details, but we know the capsule summation, because after all, the main storyline is based on Alex finding the real murderer and setting Aldiss free. That structure makes the flashbacks feel pedantic and frustrating and makes the present-day storyline feel thin and tangential.

In sum, it’s a sloppily constructed mystery, full of unconvincing details and useless characters. If I were acting out this book, I’d play the part of the guy who hangs himself before the story begins.

Similar reads: Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn, for great use of flashbacks in a mystery. I’d Know You Anywhere, by Laura Lippman, actually has good flashbacks but a bad present story.