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The Moonlit Earth / Christopher Rice

Scribner / April 2010
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno

Writers like Christopher Rice are lucky. Not lucky because their literary heritage opened a few initial doors early in their careers, because we all know that only talent can sustain a career – and Rice has plenty of that. Not lucky because his out-of-the-box success gave him the clout and sales figures to allow him to branch out from the gothic mystery leanings of his earlier works.

No, writers like Christopher Rice are lucky because their readers have patience. Patience when their output is merely passable – as is the case with Rice’s latest thriller, The Moonlit Earth

Clichéd characters populate an action-film plot involving terrorist intrigue in the Far East in this strange brew of a novel that suffers from an uninteresting protagonist, an off-canvas villain, and pacing problems galore.

Megan Reynolds is the poor little rich girl who hails from an affluent California seaside town. As the novel opens, she arrives home in Cathedral Beach, discredited following a scandal that involves the well-intentioned misappropriation of funds that sinks the San Francisco non-profit for homeless teens she helmed. Her sense of disgrace is matched only by her disdain for the surroundings and people who enabled her privileged upbringing. Although Rice sets the character up to be the sympathetic outsider, Megan comes off as anything but – petulant, ungrateful, and willful. Add to this mix the stock characters of the boozy, prescription pill-popping, society matron mother and the smarmy, rich, string-pulling cousin and you’ve already got an unlikable cast of characters by page 25. 

The emotional center of Megan’s world is her brother Cameron – a pretty boy flight attendant who’s as indistinguishable a character as any West Hollywood party boy and nearly as unsympathetic as Megan. Cameron – who’s apparently so strikingly handsome as to be the public face of his airline – ends up getting implausibly involved with a family of wealthy Saudis after the youngest son (a bona fide closet-case Middle Eastern prince nonetheless!) solicits him for sex on a privately chartered jet. Factor in one behind-the-scenes corporate bad guy, a deadly terrorist act in Hong Kong, and a case of mistaken identity, and you’ve got yourself the makings of a B-grade Bruce Willis flick, co-starring Lost’s Naveen Andrews as the Middle Eastern bodyguard (whose depiction here is the epitome of stereotype) and the late Michael Jackson as the creepy, man-child prince. If that weren’t enough, Rice layers in a soap opera subplot involving family secrets that holds all the emotion of a Lifetime movie and rings patently false to the ears in the end.

Every writer has an “off” day – and The Moonlit Earth is Rice’s. Pacing here is disconcerting, from the oddly placed forty-page flashback that all but halts the novel’s forward flow in the third act to the rushed climax and pointless post-finale narrative extension that revisits some of that familial melodrama. 

Rice proved himself a master of narrative layering and pacing with his first two novels – A Density of Souls and The Snow Garden, both gothic mysteries in which characters rang true with emotional resonance and events seemed plausible. He expanded upon those first signs of notable talent with Light Before Day, his third novel, while adding in elements of the traditional thriller. The result was a brilliantly seedy, titillating slice of noir. Then a funny thing happened on the way to the bookstore.

Christopher Rice decided he wanted to be a straight-up thriller writer. Worse, he decided to flex his budding literary muscles and started to write protagonists he was intensely ill-equipped to write – first, the heterosexual marine trying to clear his service buddy’s tarnished name in 2008’s Blind Fall and, now, a heterosexual woman in The Moonlit Earth.  In the process, he falls flat on his keyboard with characters who are difficult to sympathize with and who simply don’t come across as real people.

Sure the old writing instruction of “Write what you know” is limiting to a seasoned writer, but there is an authenticity to that pragmatic piece of advice that can cause longtime readers to celebrate when writers heed it. It’s difficult to understand why Rice gave up writing protagonists he knew intimately – namely, the gay male outsider – for the lackluster one-dimensional central characters of his last two novels. Let’s hope he’s working something out of his system and will soon return to what he knows – and writes brilliantly. In the meantime, forgive him The Moonlit Earth and go back and revisit one of his first three novels.

Purchase The Moonlit Earth by Christopher Rice.

Posted on Sunday, April 25, 2010 at 11:39AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off

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