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
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
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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