Thursday, 22 February 2007

Jeffrey Deaver: Speaking in Tongues (1995, revised 1999)

Published: Hodder & Stoughton, 1999

This is an early thriller from Jeffrey Deaver, revised four years after the original publication. Like most of his thrillers, it is fairly conventional in its plotting and background. Megan is the daughter of a moderately successful lawyer and his estranged wife; following an incident which suggests a suicide attempt to law enforcement, she is undergoing therapy when she is abducted by a psychopath looking for revenge. Her parents, intended to believe that she ran away, quickly work out that her absence is unlikely to be voluntary - why buy and hide a birthday present for her mother and then disappear before the event? The story follows Tate and Bett's attempts to find Megan, while the kidnapper makes things as difficult for them as possible - framing them for crimes, deceiving those who might otherwise have helped the pair, and so on. Though very early in his career, Deaver is already putting together the convoluted and somewhat unlikely plots which have been his stock in trade.

What lets this novel down, and exposes Deaver's inexperience even after the revision, is the characterisation. It would be easy to fill out some of the less important characters; Deaver concentrates too exclusively on Nate and the kidnapper. His wife, Bett, is sufficiently a cipher that we never learn what kind of "businesswoman" she is - and yet how many people would describe themselves as a businesswoman rather than some more specific and informative title such as "investment consultant"? Even the kidnapper is nothing more than a device for making Tate's life difficult; he is rather unbelievably good at persuading people to believe what he tells them; for example, he persuades Megan's best friend and her family, who have presumably known Megan and Bett for ages if not Tate, that Tate is a child molester - I think if someone came to your door with this story, you'd seek confirmation from someone who might know, not an apparent stranger to the family. Certainly, if Speaking in Tongues could be said to have a moral, it is not to believe what strangers tell you automatically.

Speaking in Tongues is not one of Deaver's most successful novels; for that, look to The Blue Nowhere, or one of the Lincoln Rhyme thrillers (though these also suffer from over-elaborate plotting).

One other thing, a small detail, irritated me about this novel (as someone with a research degree in logic). There is a type of argument known as an enthymeme, which when I encountered it, was called specialisation (the Greek names, which date back to Aristotle, not being considered helpful for mathematicians). This basically takes the form "if all As are Bs, and C is an A, then we can deduce that C is a B". The most famous example is "All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore Socrates is mortal.", but Deaver gives a slightly different example: "All cats see in the dark. Midnight is a cat. Therefore Midnight can see in the dark.". He then goes on to say that the classical formulation of the enthymeme is incomplete, because it also needs a line that states "All cats see in the dark, therefore Midnight sees in the dark." Now, this isn't true: what you in fact do is to note that the first two sentences take the form of the premises (parts that are assume to be true) of an enthymeme, and that therefore the enthymeme rule tells you that the conclusion is true; this isn't an extra part of the logic, but the application of a general principle. There is a much better expressed discussion of this point (though based on a different logical principle) in Douglas Hofstadter's Godel Escher Bach; the problem with requiring a new line of logic is that this starts an infinite process, all in effect identical: you also need to know that "All cats see in the dark, Midnight is a cat, and we know that when all cats see in the dark, then Midnight sees in the dark; therefore Midnight sees in the dark." (You can see why mathematicians find it easier to use symbolic notation!) Now, Deaver also goes on (much later in the novel) to suggest that the conclusion is false: Midnight is blind, so cannot see whether it is dark or not. In fact, the conclusion can only be false if one of the premises (that are assumed to be true) is actually false: either if Midnight is not a cat, or if not all cats can see in the dark (which is the reason why his example fails to be true). It has nothing to do with the general validity of the enthymeme. I suppose it's beside the point for this review (though it's the kind of error that will irritate readers who know more about a particular field than the author of a book, whatever the field happens to be), but the discussion is also beside the point in the novel itself.


Anonymous said...

Makes me wonder if you even read the book if you cannot get one of the main character's names right.

Simon McLeish said...

Actually, it's my notes I couldn't read - I wrote the review on a train, and typed it up after my copy went back to the library.

However, you're right - it's Tate not Nate.

Simon McLeish said...

And I've fixed it in the post to make things less confusing.