SOMEONE KNOWS is the work of a professional who seems to have turned into a product factory. This suspense thriller is sleek, smartly paced, savvy about its saturated tropes, and slick with oily, hacky prose. Given how much of today's crime fiction distinguishes itself through literary prose and original storytelling, it's disheartening to see one of its top sellers sleepwalk through her work:
"Her mouth went dry as dust. Her heart thundered. Adrenaline surged in her system. All of her senses focused like never before."
"Larry's throat swelled with emotion."
"Her heart pounded. Blood pulsed in her ears. She gripped the stake in her left hand. She took a deep breath, gathering her courage."
"Her heart was pounding. Her right wrist was killing her. Sweat slaked her face and body. The air felt more humid."
"She ran for her life. Her breath became ragged. She panted from exertion and terror."
OK, so enough about the prose. What about the story? SOMEONE KNOWS is a fairly cynical entry in the hot crime-fiction subgenre I called the "twenty years later" novels, in which a group of people confront the deadly secrets of their teenage past that refuse to stay buried, and/or return to their small-town hometown to confront dark and unfinished business. The characters are more types than individuals, and the peer-pressure-packed moments that lead to the deadly incident of origin often defy credibility. (To wit, who among us would put a gun to their head and pull the trigger just to prove their belief that the gun couldn't possibly be loaded? I was a dumb teenager desperate for peer acceptance, even to the point of debasing myself, and there's no way in hell I would have done that for anyone. Neither would have the character that did this, a character who was not particularly hungry for peer acceptance.)
It's too bad, because in the midst of all this gunky glibness, there's a wonderful scene in SOMEONE KNOWS in which a wise old attorney advises the main character to let go of her guilt over the events of her past and get on with her life. She is not legally culpable for the choices made by others, he says, and even if she was, her punishment would have lasted a lot less than twenty years — or even one year. So why does she insist on twenty years of self-punishment? He draws an apt Old Testament parallel, and says: "The law is all about apportioning responsibility with precision. The criminal law calibrates it by degrees. Simply put, the punishment you gave yourself does not fit the crime. It is far too excessive. That is not justice. Justice demands proportionality."
The scene is so wise and warm and wonderful, in fact, that it stands out, and not in a good way, from the rest of SOMEONE KNOWS, which reads like something hastily slapped together with airplane glue on a literary assembly line. It points uncomfortably to the undeniable reality that someone as skilled as Scottoline (a onetime lawyer herself) can write a better book — if she chooses to. That she didn't in this case implies heavily that she is confident she can coast on her brand. And sadly, she probably can.