by Will Lavender
Generally speaking, were I to use the term “contrived” in a book review, that would be a bad thing. But Will Lavender’s sophomore novel, Dominance, exudes contrivance, and it totally works. It reminds me of those classic scenes where one character states, “I suppose you’re all wondering why I’ve brought you here…” And that’s not too far from the set-up in Dominance. A group of old college classmates has been reunited by the death of one of their own. More precisely, by his murder.
Nine of them had been students in a most extraordinary literature class years ago. Their professor, an expert on the subject, is a convicted murderer. He is teaching them via telecast from inside a maximum security prison. The subject of the class, Unraveling a Literary Mystery, is the elusive novelist Paul Fallows. Fallows had published two acclaimed novels back in the 70’s, and his true identity has never been known. Scholars had been digging for it for years. Some believed that the novels themselves held clues to the author’s identity, and that the answer would be found through playing a game called “the Procedure.”
The atmosphere throughout is contrived, gothic, and ridiculously melodramatic, but it’s all sort of fun. Lavender does a great job of creating suspense. Partly this is mechanical. The first half of the book is composed of 21 chapters; the second half is 37—nearly twice as many. The story speeds up exponentially as it goes, so if things feel slow at first, hang on. There’s a lot of white space on these 368 pages, so it’s a quick read.
I don’t think Dominance is a complete success. It’s 150 pages before you get an inkling of what the mysterious “Procedure” really is. And once I found out, I was like, “That’s it?” I consider it to be a weak element of the story. Plus, I don’t think any of the characters are particularly well-developed, most of them serving as Breakfast Club stereotypes and pawns: the jock, the actor, the tramp—or their adult counterparts: the coach, the drunk, the soccer mom.
But despite any flaws, I have to admit I stayed up past 2:00AM to get to the dénouement. And when you get there, it really is (to use the PG version of the phrase) a mind freak. It’s been quite a while since I’ve read a puzzle like this, so I have to say, “Thumbs up!”