Few claims beg for more scrutiny than the one James Patterson makes about his latest novel. “The Black Book,” he says, “is the best work I’ve done in twenty years.”
To prove that claim would take a Patersonian scholar (imagine!), someone who’s read, dissected and rated every one of his books — his website lists more than 160 titles written alone or with co-authors for adults and children. And there’s no disputing his popularity. More than 350 million copies of Patterson’s books have sold worldwide, and many of his most popularprotagonists, such as Alex Cross, have become household names.
So how do you prove Patterson’s claim if you’ve read some but not all his books? You can’t. But you can decide whether this book is smart, fast-paced and entertaining, all the things we want a recreational read to be.
“The Black Book,” written with David Ellis, is certainly built for the modern attention span. The 418-page novel consists of 109 punchy chapters, many ending with a cliffhanger or a shocking revelation. Twists and surprises are so ubiquitous that it’s hard to describe the plot without giving too much away.
The hero is Billy Harney, a likable Chicago homicide detective who gets accused of murders he may or may not have committed. He can’t remember the killings, because during one particularly heated scene he gets shot in the head, and two other key characters are killed. Ballistic evidence proves Harney’s gun was used.
Harney’s problems begin when he tails a murder suspect to a house of prostitution on Chicago’s Gold Coast. The brothel’s black book, which goes missing after a raid, gives the book its title. Everyone wants it — someone is willing to kill for it — because it includes the names of the city bigwigs who don’t want their proclivities exposed, and it IDs the dirty cops who are siphoning thousands of dollars in protection money.
Patterson throws every trope into the blender: dirty cops, undercover officers, internal-affairs investigations, protection rackets and beautiful female prosecutors. The result is a goes-down-easy smoothie of a story that will satisfy most crime-novel-lite junkies. The plot twists will give you whiplash, the cliched dialogue occasionally deserves an eye roll, but, in the end, “The Black Book,” is an engaging read that feels ready for a prime-time cable-TV movie.
Is this the best book Patterson has written in 20 years? Who knows? Does it have the best marketing plan? Maybe. Before becoming a best-selling author, Patterson was a top-notch advertising executive. If anyone knows how to promote products and tantalize consumers, he does.
Carol Memmott reviews books for The Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune.
By James Patterson with David Ellis
Little, Brown. 418 pp. $28