Brad Meltzer wormed his way into the hearts of comic book fans thanks to projects like Identity Crisis, and tricked his way back in via his day job as a mystery writer with The Book of Lies, which tackles the real world origins of Superman. The moment I heard of this particular effort, I knew I would one day break my regular practice of generally avoiding popular fiction like the plague.
Popular fiction is romance books and thriller books, and probably most of the sci-fi books large quantities of people read. I don't consider Harry Potter to be popular fiction; it's fiction that happened to become extremely popular, the same way bestsellers are (and publishers selected better ten years ago). The next time I delve into these waters will be Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy. For now, I'm happy I took this little sojourn, this visit into foreign lands.
Meltzer comes from the same school that seems to dominant popular fiction. He writes very didactically, which is to say the unpolished prose that someone can learn in school if they're not careful. It's most painful in the beginning of Lies, when the narrative has not had a chance to build momentum. In that way, such writers are already using the pageturner method, helping the reader along. Considering that there are only a handful of characters (and only one who doesn't turn out to be actually significant), Meltzer makes sure that each one has a very specific and deliberate use in the plot, whether it's obvious from the start or not, and the same points are hammered for the duration of the four hundred or so pages they inhabit. In a lot of ways, that's how I write, too, so I'm not saying this is a bad thing. If it's not the conspiracy, it's figuring out the relationships that interests the writer, and they interest the reader, too.
Earlier than you'd imagine, Meltzer drops the bombs that this is a story that will involve not only the unsolved murder of Mitchell Siegel (father of Jerry Siegel, father of Superman) but Cain (as in & Abel), and a loosely sketched web of individuals who believe these two giant myths are connected. (It's another odd little quirk of fate that there was a character named Cain in the last book I read, so once again the random order of my reading list has withstood its own chaos.)
It's a rather large stretch of the imagination, and to a cynical reader, Meltzer's obvious attempt to cash in on Dan Brown's success, as many other writers have done in recent years. Yet the beauty of it is that the story spends so much time exploring Jerry Siegel, that a whole new level is introduced, one that deftly blends all of Meltzer's ambitions into a theme of family that transcends the genre. Perhaps for the first time, Superman emerges as a central piece of the American story, Meltzer's own Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, with a poignant conclusion to the desperate search and foolish antics that have been driving everything to that point.
It might even be considered a little corny, but Meltzer has spent so much time using relationships as a crutch in the story, when he finally gets around to explaining that those relationships really are what's most important to The Book of Lies, it may cause you to rethink more than just your assumptions of a genre, if you're as skeptical of popular fiction as I am.
After a string of bad books and breaks this year, I've needed something that pulled me out of my comfort zone and make me take notice. Meltzer has my gratitude for that.