Along Came A Spider: James Patterson, September 21—October 7, 2014
My rating: ♦♦♦◊◊
Detective Alex Cross is introduced in this first instalment in James Patterson’s series.
Along Came A Spider sees Detective Cross investigate the kidnapping of two children by their schoolteacher, Gary Murphy/Soneji which is heavily inspired by the Lindbergh kidnapping in 1932. Unlike Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Spider makes explicit reference to the case, with Murphy/Soneji referring to himself as the ‘Son of Lindbergh’, and expressing a desire to emulate the notoriety of Richard Hauptmann.
Cross is a likeable lead character with a background in psychology. Using his background to analyse his nemesis makes for an interesting dynamic, and hopefully this will be used more as the series progresses. His tragic backstory is quite run-of-the-mill, but Patterson has crafted him with believability. We accept Cross was alive before the events of the first book.
There was a bloated supporting cast of representatives from various agencies. Although the most important ones – Sampson and Flanagan – become more prominent as time passes, it’s unclear for the first third of the novel who we should be investing in and who is merely a stock character. As Cross’s partner, Sampson is underused in favour of his relationship with Jezzie Flanagan. Despite this, their ‘buddy cop’ friendship looks set to be enduring and Patterson will do well to explore this further in future instalments.
The stand-out supporting character is actually Nana Mamma, Cross’s grandmother and family matriarch. A strong-willed character who always gets the last word, she is tough and caring in equal measure. Her racism towards white people would not be tolerated were it inverted – which she almost acknowledges herself – and that bothers me a little. However, race is a predominant theme in the first book and doubtless the series, and it’s an attitude I hope is challenged or at least justified with more context.
Soneji/Murphy is a wonderfully creepy villain. He is clearly psychotic and at times chilling. Patterson cleverly builds elements of doubt into what is real and and what he is faking, leaving questions dangling beyond the book’s end. I like that the reader can make their own mind up, even if there are strong hints as to what the truth is.
The plot itself is unpredictable, perhaps due to the writing. Told in first person from Cross’s perspective, and third person from others including Murphy/Soneji’s, there are often major developments at the end of a chapter, with the following one set days or weeks later. The entire novel covers a time period of almost two years, and the structure means that the aftermath of major events is generally summarised as a historical event. You can’t help but feel a little cheated out of the action sometimes. And because of this, the assumption is that whatever has just been glossed over is not the “main part” of the story, and what comes next will be, however it is a pattern that repeats throughout. This leaves very little tension or immediacy, and instead makes the whole thing seem a little out of the reader’s reach.
Alex Cross gets a decent introduction that I don’t think shows him at his best yet. More psychology, more page-time with Sampson and the continuing presence of Nana could make this an interesting series which is quite unlike many others.