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Onyx reviews: FaceOff edited by David Baldacci

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 05/03/2014

Ever since people wondered who would win in a battle between Superman and Batman, readers have been asking each other what would happen if certain fictional characters were paired up. Unfortunately, the intricacies of publishing contracts usually makes such meetings impossible.

Along came the ITW (International Thriller Writers) with an idea for an anthology that would pair up thriller authors and their hallmark characters. Because the stories are donated to benefit the organization, all of the legalistic complexities fall away. All that's left is for the respective duos to figure out how to get their characters together in a thrilling way.

In his general introduction to the anthology, Baldacci does not reveal how the duos (or, in one case, trio) were matched up, but in the prefaces to the individual stories he does give a peek behind the curtain at how the teams approached and wrote the stories. Usually the first decision to be made was who would be the "home team" and who would play away. Would Harry Bosch go to Boston, or Patrick Kenzie to Los Angeles? Ian Rankin's Rebus rarely strays far from Edinburgh, but Peter James's Roy Hardy is at the other end of the British Isles, in Brighton. Occasionally, the solution was to send both characters away, on a deep sea fishing trip to Mexico, for example. When Joseph Finder and Lee Child pair up, their hallmark characters, Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees fans respectively, handle a difficult situation while their teams battle it out on the TV screen in the bar where they happen to encounter each other.

Some of the eleven stories are straight crime tales, others fit the bill of "thriller" more closely. A couple cross into the supernatural realm, as with F. Paul Wilson and Heather Graham's collaboration, which involves a trinket with enticing but dangerous powers. The strangest pairing is between Agent Pedergast, created by Preston and Child, and the ventriloquist dummy that haunts some of R.L. Stine's books. At first the story seems to be undoing everything Preston and Child did with their near-superhuman character. The stakes can be fairly routine—bringing in a wanted criminal—or the fate of humanity can be at risk, such as when a bad guy with a new toxin or a biological agent is at large.

The zippers in the monster suits are well hidden; the authors have done a good job of blending their styles together so that the resulting stories don't resemble patchwork quilts. Though the title might lead readers to think that the interactions between the characters will be antagonistic, for the most part the detectives, agents and ordinary citizens get along, though they are generally wary of each other at first. Usually they recognize something about themselves in the other character at first sight. Not all of the characters are famous: Linwood Barclay, for example, does not have a regular series protagonist, so he plucks someone from one of his books and drops him off at a rest stop with his ten year old daughter where someone is set on fire at the gas pumps.

Readers may not be familiar with all of the contributors or their characters, but that's half the point of a book like this: to provide enough of a taste so that readers may seek out other works by the authors. Every story doesn't hit it out of the park, and one or two outstay their welcome by a few pages (the dictum in thriller fiction is get into the story quickly and get out fast once its over), but it's at least an interesting experiment even when it doesn't work perfectly.

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