Friday, March 17, 2006

Shuman's Debut Novel A Suspenseful Turn

25. 18 Seconds, George Shuman, 3-17, pp. 320

First novels are not supposed to be this good.

Despite the improbable conceit underlying this thriller, George Shuman’s 18 Seconds is a riveting read. Shuman, a former D.C. cop, delivers the requisite twists, thrills and creepiness in his suspenseful debut effort. I can’t wait until the movie.

The conceit is this: abandoned as a child, Sherry Moore is blind, not because of a physical condition, but from emotional trauma. Someone, as a result of that emotional short circuit, Sherry also has an unusual ability. By touching the hand of a dead person, Sherry can retrieve that person’s final 18 seconds of memory. Shuman trots out a computer analogy to explain Sherry’s “gift.” She is, in effect, a biological data retrieval system.

The “gift” won’t work on living people. We have some sort of biological firewall in place that keeps our thoughts and memories from trickling out at the merest touch. But with the dead, the security system goes down, allowing Sherry to tap into their memories.

It doesn’t always work. The longer someone’s been dead the less likely it is the data is intact. Plus, the memories aren’t sequential. They’re random. Someone’s thoughts might jump from the man in front of them with a gun to a childhood memory to their teen years. Sherry has to make sense of it all.

For the most part, she manages to do just that; which makes Sherry a valuable resource to the law enforcement personnel willing to work with a psychic. That's how the public understands Sherry's gifts, although the reader knows she's more Microsoft than medium.

Sherry’s also beautiful and without the customary mannerisms we associate with the blind. Recently Shuman said he didn’t have an actress in mind to play Sherry in the movie – and Hollywood should definitely option this book – but it’s a no-brainer. Ashley Judd is Sherry Moore.

Sherry’s special skill drives the book, but there’s far more too it than just a beautiful biological data retrieval system. The serial killer, Earl Sykes, is suitably creepy. Shuman’s added an especially nice touch with Earl. At the beginning of the novel, he’s in prison, not for the murders he’s committed, but for a tragic accident involving a school bus. When he’s eventually released from prison, the unpleasant Mr. Sykes isn’t on anyone’s radar.

Lt. Kelly Lynch-O'Shaughnessy, the small-town cop, is earnest, confused about the direction of her marriage and dogged in the investigation into the disappearances of several women from the beach town of Wildwood, N.J. But, predictably, she’s looking in the wrong direction. She’s also beset by wrong-headed parents, city administrators and a drunken lout of a cop.

It all works. Many of the elements of thrillers have become formulaic, but Shuman’s material rises above the banal. The pacing is brisk, the characters well drawn and the suspense, well, suspenseful. Also to his credit, Shuman pulls all the loose ends together for a satisfying conclusion. There are elements of improbability to 18 Seconds, but when it’s all said and done you won’t care. I didn’t.

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