To Go: 79
21. The First Deadly Sin — Lawrence Sanders
My father gave me The First Deadly Sin for Christmas, and I have to confess, I put off reading it for a while: the outward appearance—yellowing, smelly pages, an unappealing cover, and a cracked spine—was a little off-putting. But when I was heading to Ottawa, I needed a couple of short books to bring with me, and The First Deadly Sin was one of the smallest books I had on my bookshelf.
The First Deadly Sin carries on a cat-and-mouse chase between Daniel C. Blank, a fitness-obsessed psychopath who starts killing random men in his neighbourhood for sport, and Edward X. Delaney, the captain of New York City’s 251st precinct. Delaney, a brilliant detective caught up in departmental politics, is tasked with conducting an unofficial investigation, in the hopes of beating the incompetent Commissioner Boughton to the murderer, and preventing the man’s political ascension.
Making the narrative choice to jump back and forth between Blank and Delaney presented an interesting dynamic, which could have made The First Deadly Sin much more compelling than it was. But the bizarre characterization of Daniel Blank brought down the novel, as did the excessive description of the utterly banal.
Blank’s character was, quite simply, a hyperbole; he was a mockery of a villain. In murderers and criminals, authors have a great opportunity for complex and even tragic backstories, nuanced characters who suffer deeply, and lash out at their world as a result. But Blank was a joke. Instead of making the reader squirm because of his actions, his only squirm-inducing quality was his sheer ridiculousness. It seemed like Sanders just decided to pile on characteristics he felt were unappealing, and as a result created a jumbled, non-sensical murderer: Blank was a homophobic bisexual pedophile; he grew up in an emotionally-devoid family practically designed to breed serial killers, yet somehow could express excessive tenderness and love. He made no sense.
The cat to Blank’s mouse, Captain Delaney, was a much more palatable character, but his sections were equally difficult to sit through: with Delaney, Sanders tended to focus on the minutiae of his life, to the detriment of the book’s pace. I got a play-by-play of every meal Delaney ate during his chapters, when all I really wanted to see was his progression in the case. Like Stieg Larsson, Sanders needs to figure out what’s important plot information, and what can be cut (namely: anything to do with food).
And for all the uniqueness of the chase, the final capture of Daniel Blank was an utter let-down: it was another fifty pages of waiting without any pretense of action or substance, which made Delaney’s win feel completely unearned.
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