Book (well, Audiobook) Review: Level 26: Dark Origins.
Level 26: Dark Origins is the worst novel I’ve read all year. Granted, it’s still early, and I know that there are worse novels out there, and I might even be in the mood to punish myself with something crappy before 2014’s up. Then again, I’m an optimist, so here’s to hoping I stick to quality literature ’til the end of the year.
Why did I read (well, listen to) Level 26: Dark Origins?
Two reasons, really. The first being the fact that I knew I had a bunch of long-distance driving to do, so I figured I’d grab a cheap audiobook from Half Price Books for those times I didn’t feel like listening to my ipod’s super awesome music selection.
The other? Well, I’d heard about the book before (on RPG.net’s Other Media forum, I believe), based on the ridiculousness of the concept and the cover blurb. Let me share the quote:
“It is well known among law enforcement personnel that murderers can be categorized on a scale of twenty- five levels of evil, from the naive opportunists starting out at Level 1 to the organized, premeditated torture- murderers who inhabit Level 25.
What almost no one knows—except for the elite unnamed investigations group assigned to hunt down the world’s most dangerous killers, a group of men and women accounted for in no official ledger, headed by the brilliant but reluctant operative Steve Dark—is that a new category of killer is in the process of being defined.
Only one man belongs to this group.
His targets: Anyone
His alias: Sqweegel
His classification: Level 26“
So yes. There’s a guy called Sqweegel who is SO EVIL that he reached Level 26, or something.
And the guy chasing him is named Steve Dark.
It’s that kind of book.
It’s also worth noting that Anthony E. Zuiker is listed as the author of the book- he’s the guy behind the CSI francise. So naturally, a lot of the book plays out like an extended episode of CSI where the characcters can say “fuck.” It’s also worth noting that the co-writer/ghost-writer is one Duane Swierczynski, who’s written a bunch of superhero stuff for both DC and Marvel. More on that in a bit.
Ultimately, everything that’s wrong with this novel is in the character of Squeegel. There’s a germ of an idea here, in that Smeagol wears a full body latex gimp suit in order to not leave evidence. Fair enough, that’s a creepy visual. Have him skulk around, stab some people, and you’ve got a cheap and forgettable slasher movie. Book. Whatever.
But really, the problem is right there in the back cover blurb. Since Squeegee broke the level cap on the serial killer character class (sorry, nerd humor, folks), that means he has to be so brilliant and so dangerous that there’s never been anyone like him in the history of mankind before. A Moriarty in a gimp suit.
However, writing a brilliant character is hard. Zuiker (and/or Swiercynski) has found a way around this, however. It’s not that Squirrelgoo is a genius, it’s just that he gets bullshit hax author fiat powers, and all the other characters are goddamn idiots. And this isn’t in the entertaining, slasher movie, “let’s go skinny dipping in the cursed lake!” kind of idiocy, either. Examples:
Squidward’s gimmick is that he’s essentially a bondage ninja, sneaking in to murder people, and then sneaking out during the investigation. It’s just that the cops must be really shitty at their jobs to keep letting him get away. For example, in an early case, it’s stated that Squanto snuck into a car wash, waited for a car to go through, opened the door and murdered the woman inside, and then he hid under the spare tire in the back for a day until he could sneak out. So, you know, the forensic guys combing the car over for any trace of evidence miss the murderer hiding in the trunk. Yeah.
A better (worse?) example of this is later in the novel, when Skeeball sneaks into Steve Dark’s house to be all creepy and molest his wife, and again pulls his brilliant “hide like a ninja” scheme…by standing behind a curtain. This allows him to evade Steve Dark, Steve’s two dogs, and whatever other nameless cops come to investigate. Seriously, that trick is as old as Shakespeare. Hamlet needed a ghost and a theater company to solve just the one murder, and he still could’ve found Mr. Sweatsuit.
Or, there’s a part where Squeegel (I’m running out of contrived names to call him) goes into a convenience store and buys beer (which he then drugs) for some teenage boys who give him the money to do so. Fair enough.
Only the problem is, the three teenagers decide it’s a good idea to get in the goddamn car with the creepy guy who just bought them beer, because the guy said he wanted to go buy gin somewhere else. So, y’know, they naturally go with him, instead of just letting him keep the rest of the money. This results in Squeegel drugging them, raping them, and dumping them naked on the steps of their high school in the middle of the day without anyone noticing. Because, you know, it’s not like schools are built in open areas or have anyone watching the parking lot, really.
In a non-Squeegel related plot point, there’s a flashback where we see how Steve Dark met his wife. It’s stated that they met in a liquor store, where Steve is loading up on booze…and he hasn’t shaved or showered in a few days. But he’s apparently so handsome that his wife-to-be strikes up conversation and decides to go over to his apartment for dinner. Maybe she has a hobo fetish, I dunno.
Even when the other characters aren’t being pants-on-head stupid, the novel goes out of its way to make things work for Squeegel, because there wouldn’t be a plot otherwise. For example, Squeegel is able to:
- Plant an untold number of spy cameras in every possible place so he always knows what’s happening to all the other characters all the time. This includes putting an undetected spy camera on Air Force Two. It’s just the vice president’s plane, after all. Nobody would think to look for spy stuff there.
- Empty out the contents of some fire extinguishers, and refill them with gasoline. While I appreciate this for being an appropriately evil idea, Squeegel manages to do this in a shed, with little more than a wrench and a hose, and the fire extinguishers miraculously spray flammable liquid instead of a non-flammable powder. So, you know, fire extinguishers aren’t that pressurized after all.
- After being shot in the middle of one of his torture sessions, Squeegel is still able to run away, catch a private flight across the country (the book never explains where he gets all the money to fund all his evil stuff, by the way), patch himself up, and then he sneaks into the hospital where Steve Dark’s wife is being held. And of course he has gadgets installed in the hospital so he can cut off its power whenever he wants to. As you do.
Really, every couple of chapters had a moment where I’d yell out “WHAT.” Not in a twisty, surprised, “oh what a plot twist!” sense, but rather, in the “this is bullshit!” way. Now, I’m all for willing suspension of disbelief, especially given all the sci fi and fantasy I read. However, when a book that’s ostensibly set in the “real” world repeatedly fails to work in a remotely believable fashion, it just becomes frustrating.
Zuiker and Swierczynski have bitten off more they can chew in Level 26. If they had reduced the scale of the action, they wouldn’t keep stumbling over themselves to tell us just how evil of a dude their bad guy is. Guy in a mask with a knife is perfectly fine for terrorizing teenagers at a summer camp, but this book gets the Secretary of Defense involved, just to show how eeeeevul Squeegee is. Oh, and I’d better not forget that the Secretary of Defense has his own personal assassination squad, called “Dark Arts,” which suddenly makes all those teachers at Hogwarts a little more hardcore. But really, between the mask and the ubiquitous survelliance, Squeegel is more supervillain than serial killer- which makes sense, given Swierczynski’s background in comic books.
Listening to Level 26 via audiobook gave it an extra little layer, I will say. While the plot of the book itself is contrived and stupidity-driven, the audiobook’s at least produced in a kinda flashy way. There are little sound effects sprinkled throughout the book- gunshots, breaking glass, computer beepy noises, the kind of stock sounds that you’d expect. On top of that, the book is billed as a “digital novel,” which means that every few chapters, there’s a link to something called a “digital bridge.” These digital bridges are little youtube videos that add to or illustrate events taking place in the novel. It’s a neat idea, but at the same time, the videos are kind of cheesy, and sometimes don’t mesh with events as they’re laid out, or as I pictured them. It’s like having the “book vs. movie” debate on the work before a proper movie was even made.
John Glover performs the book, and I will note he does a good job of it. Of course, he still has the text to work with, so he doesn’t save it- but at the same time, I can admire the gusto with which he sinks his teeth into the material in his performance. His voice is strong and gravely, which is an asset for the hard-boiled parts…but it leaves just a little to be desired when he’s voicing a female character (of which there are very few in the novel, but it’s not John Glover’s fault). Dude was Riddler on the 90’s Batman cartoon, so props for that.
A bit of googling tells me that, yes, there are more Level 26 novels out there. I’m not doing any more research than that, as I have no intention of reading the further adventures of Special Agent Steve Dark.
Besides, they’re missing an opportunity to name the next novel Level 27.