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Onyx reviews: Rough Draft by James W. Hall

Rough Draft is one of those suspense thrillers that sounds much better on the dust jacket copy than it turns out to be in its execution. The dust jacket summary promises intrigue based on strange marginal notes and cryptic messages scribbled in a copy of protagonist Hannah Keller's first novel. As it turns out, the origin of these annotations are not kept a mystery very long and an eleven-year-old child solves the cryptic message. It is a disappointing case of bait-and-switch.

Before she became a successful novelist, Hannah Keller was a police officer and spokesperson for the Miami Police Department. On the day that she received word that her first book had been accepted for publication, her parents were brutally executed. Only her six-year-old son survived the home invasion. Her father was an assistant U.S. attorney investigating the largest embezzlement in U.S. history. The prime suspect in the theft—and therefore in the murders—is financier J.J. Fielding, who has disappeared along with almost half a billion dollars.

Hannah, who discovered the murder scene, is obsessed with cracking the case. When the crime goes unsolved, she turns her energies inward, escaping into her writing. Beyond the ten hours a day she spends working on her string of novels, she has very little time in her life for anything except her son—and not even very much time for him.

Now, five years after the murders, someone is prodding Hannah back into the investigation. What the dust-jacket copy does not reveal, but the first chapter of the novel does, is that the FBI is manipulating Hannah into searching for Fielding in an effort to trap a psychopathic hit man whose most recent killing was that of the daughter of a prominent U.S. senator. Hal Bonner, the hit man who works for the Cali drug cartel, is also on the trail of Fielding and the Feds hope that they can use Hannah's investigation to flush the elusive murderer out into the open.

Hall works hard to depict Bonner as a sociopath, someone so broken that they can only identify human emotions by observation and imitation. "I'm not stupid, I can read, I can do math" is Bonner's mantra, but clearly he is successful at his profession only through luck. He has learned what physical attributes are considered "beauty," what emotional signs are called "love." Hall has created a completely implausible villain, one so foreign in his thinking patterns that the average reader will have a hard time accepting him as being part of our reality. Bonner's apparent transition in the novel, then, becomes even less believable because of Hall's portrayal of him up to that point.

Even the ordinary characters in this book behave unbelievably. FBI agent Frank Sheffield, who was in charge of the Keller murder investigation, is unmotivated in his job and appears to be merely putting in time. When the FBI's covert operation puts Hannah and Frank back together again, Frank's only interest is in getting Hannah to go out with him, even when Hannah has just been shot at in a restaurant. His dialog and behavior is so unexpected that it makes his character seem as unreal as the sociopath, Bonner.

The questions asked on the dust jacket are answered so directly and so soon into the story, that the reader is left with very little real mystery. Hall does manage to keep up the pace and tie together some seemingly unrelated threads at the end, which almost make it a worthwhile novel.

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