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By James Grippando

Harper, HarperCollins, 2011 ($9.99)

ISBN-13: 978-0-06-184029-6
Kindle eBook: ($8.99)

Reviewed by Sam Waas

I was still a kid when home color TV became available. There was this gadget you could buy to pretend you had color even if you didn't. It was a sheet of translucent plastic you trimmed to fit your screen and taped up there. Its "color" simply consisted of three tinted bands, horizontal across the plastic, green on top, pinkish in the middle, brown at the bottom. If you were watching, say, a Western, you could try real hard and imagine the trees green, the earth brown, and the always-Anglo actors a raw inhuman orange. It was laughable and I suppose that even people who bought the thing ended up dumping it in the trash after a week or two. Fake color to cheat on an otherwise colorless image but nothing like the real thing.

That's how AFRAID OF THE DARK seemed to me. I realize the analogy is fanciful but it's the best way I can describe the novel, an overly drab narrative that's been splashed with artful tweaks to inject some needed lifeblood.

Defense attorney Jack Swyteck takes on a client who's accused of murdering his teenage girlfriend and blinding a policeman, but soon finds that the client had been detained by black ops government agents during which time the crime was committed. The CIA isn't talking, of course, and Swyteck follows numerous false leads and dead ends to search for the real murderers. A fearful shadowy presence hovers, a mysterious international hit man and killer who calls himself "The Dark." He's always there, a step ahead of Swyteck, eliminating witnesses and generally mucking up the investigation.

The story is well plotted and has sufficient twists and turns to keep the reader interested. The narrative is also nicely drawn, hardboiled but not to the point of parody. Characterizations are believable and provide a solid foundation for the story line. AFRAID OF THE DARK is well written, a clever and substantive mystery.

I found some of the book offputting, however. The tenor of this novel is definitely "R" but much of the narrative is still colorless, like the old TV sets, and the pastiche of violence mostly occurs off-stage, like Greek tragedy and very like the faux color of the plastic overlay. Some of the more critical events in the plotline are told to us after the fact, which drains energy from the story. We're more accustomed to tragedy in the Senecan tradition, blood spilled right in front of us and splattering our shoes. For some reason, the narrative is reticent to do so, and tends to drift off and change direction just as expected plot lines should strike sparks.

But fans of James Grippando will likely find this book a good entry to the Swyteck lineage and should definitely check it out. Many other reviewers rave, so my opinion is in the minority. I just wasn't afraid of the dark nor of any other part of this novel.

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