BOOKSSex, Cash, and Poison in the Chianti: James Patterson’s Roses are Red

In 1995, he gave us Kiss the Girls. In April, the movie adaptation of Along Came a Spider hits theaters. Now the saga of Detective Alex Cross continues, with James Patterson’s latest thriller, Roses are Red.

Considering the formulaic nature of most genre fiction, it is a relief that Roses are Red sounds like a real story. Sure, the traditional elements of Thriller Fiction are all there —the unwilling hero, the references to past adventures (available at your friendly neighborhood bookstore!), and the obligatory gruesome murder scenes—but there is an art to their arrangement. They are not paraded past the reader in random order; Patterson uses them to create something of his own.

On TV, it’s called the Melrose Effect: upping the “drama” to hold the attention of an increasingly blasé audience. In the literary world, a similar phenomenon causes the bookstore shelves to drip gore. More is not just better, it’s necessary. Cases have to be more bizarre, showdowns more dangerous, villains more twisted, and plots more convoluted. But above all, there must be sex. Lots and lots of sex.

Roses are Red shows more than a few traces of this effect; the key to the novel’s success is that the sensationalistic, nausea-inducing images blend into the established storyline. They fit, and so the reader accepts their presence. The area in which the Melrose Effect becomes most annoying in Roses are Red is the writing itself. Not only does this novel sound as though it is the paper version of a movie (which is not too far off, since it may very well become one), but Patterson’s attempt to infuse his writing with emotion ends up with lots of gratuitous italics that show up frequently and all too predictably.

Roses are Red follows Dec. Cross’ latest case, in which a series of bloody bank robberies are staged by a mysterious criminal with a pathological need for control and a deadly emphasis on obedience. Precise commands are issued when the robbers invade the banks, and if even one mistake, however small, is made, people die. Not just people in the bank: wives, husbands, and children are executed also. The individual behind the well-ordered teams remains a mystery to both the perps and the police; he identifies himself only as the “Mastermind.”

Alex Cross would like nothing better than to be left alone. After the unsatisfying conclusion of another case that left his girlfriend psychologically scarred (Pop Goes the Weasel), he is ready for some quality time with his family and a respite from the pressures of law enforcement. But when an FBI agent arrives on his doorstep during a christening party, Cross finds himself dragged willy-nilly into a case that will take over his life for months.

The frustrating search for the elusive “Mastermind” is complicated by a mysterious illness that causes Cross’ daughter to have violent seizures, and by his girlfriend’s inability to deal with the hazards of his occupation. Terrified by visions of the killer who targeted her before, and fearful for Cross’ safety, Christine does nothing to lessen the guilt that already plagues her partner.

You may think you know who the killer is. You may think you know who’s at the top of the food chain. You may think you know what will happen next.

Don’t be so sure. The Mastermind is way ahead of you.