Monday, April 22, 2013

By Reason of Insanity - Stevens (Novel)

May I first off just say, "thank you" to everyone who reads this blog? Honestly, I have no idea who most of you are, but it makes me very happy to have readers who (based on the stats Blogger gives me) seem to be more-or-less consistent. As I have said, I started this blog as much for the love of writing as anything else. I typically write fiction, so I thought it would be a good idea to have a non-fiction outlet as well. I've always tried to have the attitude that I don't actually care if people read what I'm writing, because it really is an intellectual exercise for me to "stay sharp", but I'm not going to pretend it doesn't do my heart good to know that there are people out there that like what I write. Don't be afraid to comment, by the way, that lets me know you care. (Does that sound desperate?)

That being said, let us move on to today's review: By Reason of Insanity (1979). I wish I could claim to be cool enough to have known about Shane Stevens before reading about him in the back of Stephen King's odd novel The Dark Half. I guess I could claim that, but it would be a lie. Stevens' books enjoyed some popularity when they were written, then they were largely forgotten until King gave a shout-out to Stevens by naming a sort-of character in The Dark Half after someone in Dead City. After that, three of the titles (Dead City, By Reason of Insanity, and The Anvil Chorus) were reprinted for public consumption. I'm indebted to King for doing this, but it's sad that it needed to be done at all; Stevens is one of the finest novelists of which I am aware, and I feel he deserves much more recognition than he has.

His earlier books are harder to find. I've seen used paperback copies of Rat Pack selling on Amazon for upwards of $80. Recently I lucked out and acquired a copy of Go Down Dead for about $15, but mostly the books available to readers these days are those mentioned above as being reprinted. I know, I know, I haven't even touched on Insanity, but I'm getting there. I have one last item of interest before the novel itself: my perception of Stevens' career.

I have read four of his novels and have found the following to be true:

 If my arbitrary number system confuses you, let's say "200" would be considered "an uncommonly good book," while "500" would be somewhere in the neighborhood of "wow, this book seriously changed me." I can't stress enough how blown away I was by Insanity, nor can I express fully my disappointment and confusion in reading The Anvil Chorus. Chorus was Stevens last book. He's still alive, btw, but I don't know why he stopped writing. Perhaps he gave everything he had in Insanity, which would explain why The Anvil Chorus (while incredibly well written) is ultimately meaningless and nigh-unreadable. I may be exaggerating slightly by awarding it a "0", but I think you get the idea. Whatever the reason, let us consider Insanity to be his magnum opus, and effectively his spiritual last novel.

By Reason of Insanity is a crime novel, as all of Stevens' books are. It focuses on the life of a fictitious serial killer, Thomas Bishop. I emphasize "fictitious" because it can be easy to forget that this is a novel and not a fictionalization of a historic account. The book is so brutal, so utterly real, that it seems unlikely to the reader that it didn't actually happen. Stevens has created a challenge with this book to filmmakers, novelists, and artists of any kind: just try to do better. I believe that challenge, while implied, is also meant to be explicit. (Is that even possible?) Stevens had a goal: to make the reader understand as fully as possible why some people believe they were made only to murder other people, with the added horror of realizing there is nothing on earth that will change such a person's opinion on the matter.

When I say this book is brutal, I'm not foolin'. This is not a book for the over-queasy or delicate. Not to say there is anything wrong with being sensitive, mind you, I'm simply stating if you are such a person, you may not want to read this book. If, on the other hand, criminal psychology and the logistics of serial killings is of interest to you, this book is the best fiction resource you're likely to find.

Years of research went into this novel, and the power of that research is realized. Dozens of well-developed characters (from politicians, to reporters, to mob bosses) are utilized to tell the story from a hundred different angles. Nothing, positively nothing, is left to the imagination. This is something most writers (myself included) would shy away from, and with good reason. But Stevens breaks this rule intentionally, and has the raw writing power to do it. My biggest complaint with the book is that it doesn't really have gender sensibility in mind. I don't believe it is meant to be overtly sexist (as if that were common), but I don't care for the general intelligence level of the female characters, which are uniformly unintelligent. This is not only offensive, but pulls me out of the reality Stevens has crafted with such care. But, no book is perfect. Except maybe Midnight Sun. But we'll get to that another day.

One thing about Stevens I appreciate is his lack of interest in glorifying evil. In all of his novels he is an exposer of evil, an expounder or evil, but never is he a defendant of it. By Reason of Insanity is harrowing, but it is also instructive. I recommend it to a certain type of person, as King has said, "unreservedly." Whether or not that means you is your call.

-MA 4.22.13

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