My fascination with Mata Hari makes me read all sorts of books dealing with her, not all of them being good. In particular, I still have to find a decent novel having Mata Hari as the protagonist. This recent novel by Elyse Douglas is an example. I would describe it as a "Rube Goldberg Novel." It moves onward, yes, but clumsily and without purpose.
Let me start with the first page of this novel, nay, with the first paragraph. And there you read:
With a certain unease and reluctance, twenty-nine-year old Tracey Peyton Rutland entered Maynard Hopkins' private, sunny office on East 78th street. Dr. Hopkins closed the door softly behind her, clearing his throat. "Good morning. May I take your coat?" he offered.Huh? Wait a moment, wait a moment, is it really the way this novel is written? Or is it just a trick to introduce it by showing how badly you can write the first paragraph? Do the authors, (Ms. Parmentier and Mr. Pennington, aka Elyse Douglas) want to compete for the Bulwer-Lytton prize? (you know the story, right? The novel starting with "It was a dark and stormy night."). But no, the novel is written all in this style, from the first paragraph to the last, for all its 368 pages. All the same: involved, clumsy, slow, heavily plodding sentences like the first one.
Huh, indeed. It makes you wonder if there actually exist such entities as writing schools where they teach you a rule called "show, don' tell." And if there ever existed novelists such as Ernest Hemingway.
Now, before continuing, a disclaimer: I am not a novelist, at best you could say that I am a (bad) blog writer. But, if I am a bad writer, I can at least claim to be a good reader. And when I read something, I can understand the effort of the author(s) in doing their best, but I also reserve the right to criticize them.
This said, I would also state that it is not impossible that a novel could be poorly written and still be a good novel. Kurt Vonnegut spoke of defects in novels making the comparison with a beautiful woman with two eyes of different color, a detail that could make her even more charming. But, as the world goes, an ugly woman is often ugly in every detail. And that's true also for fiction: Some novels may be bad in every detail.
"The Lost Mata Hari Ring" is, indeed, a novel that I would compare to a Rube Goldberg machine. You know the concept: these are machines where things move in a chain, one step after the other. First, you have a ball going down a slope, it hits a lever, which lights a match, which punctures a water container, the water floods another container, which moves another lever, and so on. A Rube Goldberg machine can be some fun to watch in action, but it has no purpose. It leaves no impact on you.
Not that the Penningtons, Elyse and Douglas, haven't done their homework. They have. And that shows when the protagonist - Tracey - time-travels to 1916. The characters include historical figures and the setting looks reasonably believable, apart from some quirks such as referring to Vadim Maslov consistently as "Vadime" and for having the characters addressing Mata Hari in conversation with her stage name of "Mata Hari" - which makes no sense.
The problem with the novels is not the premise: there is nothing wrong with having the protagonist wearing a ring that belonged to Mata Hari and as, a consequence, being immediately whooshed to 1916. It is all part of the concept of "suspension of disbelief." After all, Dante Alighieri never told us how exactly he traveled to Hell.
The problem is that in any story characters must have a motivation - they have to be engaged in searching for something, learning something, finding someone. But the protagonist of this novel is described as if she were a Barbie doll and she moves through the novel with the same sense of purpose as a doll being shared among different children. Trace, the protagonist, travels to 1916, meets Mata Hari, falls in love with a British pilot, marries him, befriends Mata Hari's daughter, her husband dies, she is accused of espionage, she comes back to our times, she gets married, and she has a baby. Huh? The other characters are just as shallow, including Mata Hari herself.
Now, I know that a lot of work goes into writing a novel and that a novel is very much like a child for the author. Receiving criticism for one's writings - of any kind - is hard. As I said, writing a bad novel takes about as much work as writing a good one. But these are the rules of the game. And I can propose that NOT being criticized may be worse than being criticized. The Pennington couple wrote several novels - I counted 17 of them on the Amazon.com site. Considering that "The Lost Ring" seems to be one of the recent novels they published, I would be somewhat perplexed at the idea of tackling another one. Especially this one with a cover that makes it look like a chocolate candy.
I figure that the Penningtons love what they are doing and they would profit from some criticism in order to improve. The problem is that it is impossible to find some real criticism of their books. The reviews on Amazon or on Goodreads are all glowingly positive. Which is a general problem of all ratings on the Web, but an especially important one for the disappearing art of novel writing. Sure, there may be a market for a certain kind of "romance novels", but they don't have to be all bad. And if bad novels are not criticized, how can the good ones be recognized?
So, are novels a dead art form? Maybe. And then, maybe not. Some forms of storytelling are clearly obsolete, but that doesn't mean there won't be new ones. The future will tell and, in any case, there remain powerful mythopoietic symbols in our world, one of whom is Mata Hari. And you cannot stop symbols from expressing themselves in some way. Which is, in the end, what "The Lost Ring of Mata Hari" shows.