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A book by Sean Doolittle

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"Safer" Plays It A Bit Too Safe

  • Mar 5, 2009
  • by
"Safer", a new crime thriller written by Sean Doolittle, opens promisingly. While hosting a faculty dinner party with his wife, English professor Paul Callaway is arrested for "suspected sexual exploitation of a minor", a crime which of which we assume he is innocent. He is taken away in handcuffs, leaving his wife and dinner guests behind with a plea for someone to call a lawyer on his behalf. This sets the stage for a story that shows us some unpleasant truths about a seemingly idyllic neighborhood in the Midwest, and touches on themes like privacy, safety, and community.

The story alternates between a first person present narrative that describes events as they progress from Paul's arrest, and a first person past narrative that has Paul explaining the back story (sometimes to the reader, sometimes to his attorney) leading up to the dinner party. This keeps the book moving along quickly, and each segment is just the right size to keep the reader engaged. It also makes "Safer" a compelling and fast read; you could put this away on a cross-country plane ride. Of course, as with most first person narratives, it also eliminates some possible endings (leaving aside the possibility that the narrator is reaching us from beyond the grave), and therefore some of the tension.

"Safer" raises some topical and important issues like the balance of privacy vs. perceived safety, and, if it does take a village, just how far we ought let that village become involved in our lives. Unfortunately, the author stops there. Given the opportunity to mine deeper topics like abuse, neglect, manipulation, and the knee-jerk reaction most of us have to immediately believe the accuser in sexual abuse cases, Doolittle chooses to simply dig at the surface.

Partly because of this, in the end this book takes us places we've all been before, from the apparently wonderful neighborhood with creepy secrets beneath the surface, to the conspiracy that no one but our protagonist entirely believes exists. The author's flashes of humor and offbeat style are just too few and far between to elevate the story beyond that simple fact. Strangely too, as the book unfolded I found Paul's character beginning to get on my nerves a bit. Perhaps it was because he started to feel like a bit of a cliché, behaving less like how I imagine an English professor put in his position might, and more like how an English professor put in his position would fantasize about behaving. The net result was that while I was initially sucked into the story and looking forward to finding the time to get back to it, I actually became a bit less engaged as the book drew to a conclusion, and I started to feel as if "Safer" had been written with the goal of a movie deal in mind.

That said, I fear I'm sounding a bit more critical of "Safer" than I actually am. Doolittle is a fine writer and has written some unique scenes into "Safer", like when he occasionally has Callaway speak directly to the reader as if he's speaking to a class (remember, Callaway is an English professor), and explain what, exactly he is doing stylistically at that moment. In moments like those, Doolittle is at his best, showing us that there are still ways to bring something new to the genre. He's also skilled at writing believable dialog that rarely drags, has an economy of style that I truly appreciate, and has included some good, sarcastic wit (I laughed out loud for so long at one scene in particular I was concerned I'd wake my sleeping wife).

For people who aren't yet maxed on crime fiction and looking for an enjoyable quick read for the beach this summer, it's a very good choice. As for me though, I'm a bit disappointed: I'd like to have seen Doolittle push a little more into uncharted territory, whether topical or stylistic. Oddly, "Safer" suffers the most in comparison to itself: the author gives us a few looks at the chops he clearly has, but too few. I'm quite sure that I would have "Safer" far more if he had chosen to display them a bit more often.

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review by . December 18, 2009
With the famous writer comments on the cover, I was expecting a lot more from this book that starts out interesting for about 75 pages and then lapses into a very boring and difficult to follow read. I think it is due to the difficult flashback style employed by the author. He uses Paul, the main character who is arrested at the beginning of the book for putting underage porn on the net of his neighbor, to tell the story in first person. Paul keeps saying that he has had to keep from telling his …
review by . May 06, 2009
Everyone wants to live in a town where everyone knows each other, where everyone keeps an eye out for their neighbor, a place where you always belong. But what if this idyllic community slowly turned into a Brave New Neighborhood? What everyone knew you more than you would like, your neighbors kept too close an eye on you, and when they didn't like what they saw, decided that you were no longer welcome?      Sean Doolittle takes a handful of modern paranoid fears and combines …
review by . April 10, 2009
While not particularly groundbreaking, SAFER is a wonderful thriller. The method of storytelling by the author, Sean Doolittle, is especially engaging because he paces the book incredibly well. The reader is introduced to the main character, Paul, who is being arrested on the first page. The story then alternates between Paul explaining his story to his attorney and others involved, introducing a possible paranoia of his neighbors with no substantial evidence to support his claims of innocence and …
About the reviewer
Bradford Schmidt ()
Ranked #372
My background is in the arts; I designed and ran a television station in the 80's, was a record producer and independent engineer in the late 80's and early 90's, then formed one of the first online advertising … more
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ISBN-10: 0385338988
ISBN-13: 978-0385338981
Author: Sean Doolittle
Publisher: Delacorte Press (February 24, 2009)

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