Thursday, July 12, 2012

"Obedience" by Will Lavender

Mary, Brian and Dennis are students in Professor L. Williams' course called Logic And Reasoning. His assignment for the class is a fictional scenario in which a young girl called Polly has been kidnapped. They have until the end of semester to figure out where she is being kept. If they don't figure it out, she will be murdered.

Mary and Brian in particular become heavily involved in the assignment. This only increases when the professor's assistant alerts them to a case from twenty years previously in which a young girl called Deanna Ward went missing and was never found. Both cases are eerily similar and Williams even wrote a book about the case. As the semester draws to a close, more and more strange events occur that seem to connect the real case with the figurative one. What does Williams know about Deanna's disappearance? Are they still completing an assignment or solving a decades-old cold case?

It is hard to provide opinions on this book without including massive spoilers. This book has been out for three or four years now, so I imagine most people interested in reading it will likely already have done so. However, for the sake of not being an asshole, once again I point out that there will be spoilers.


At first, I was really drawn into this novel. An original idea, plus a crime thriller that didn't involve world-weary cops or forensic investigators. Amazing! However, just past halfway through, I figured out that it was all one big set-up. Exactly what sort of set-up I wasn't too sure, but I was certain it would all end up being a massive cheat. I kept reading to the end, half-hoping I was wrong, and to also see exactly what the set-up would be.

It turns out that the entire scenario was devised by Elizabeth Orman, the wife of the Dean of the university. She was doing a dissertation for her PhD in Behavioural Psychology and Mary and Brian were the subjects. Elizabeth wanted to test how far a person would theoretically go to save a person they didn't know. Dennis was in on what Elizabeth dubbed "The Polly Experiment", ensuring that Mary and Brian would follow the clues correctly. Every single person they spoke to was an actor hired to take part in the elaborate scheme. The Deanna Ward case was also a fabrication.

Now, if you're going to throw a massive curveball at your reader that upends everything that came before it, it needs to make sense. This doesn't make sense, as there is no way it could EVER happen. A behavioural psychology study with human subjects that haven't provided consent? PLEASE! Imagine the lawsuits! How much money did this small university have on hand to pay so many actors to take part? How did they know everything would happen at exactly the right time? Why didn't one of the students take two minutes to contact the police about the Deanna Ward case? That would have ended the entire ruse right there. What happened to the rest of the students in the class? It is the most absurd, stupid twist ending I have read. Yes, it even trumps the stupid twist ending found in "The Shepherd".

There are references to the experiment conducted by Stanley Milgram regarding how far a person would go to obey authority. It's a fascinating study, but not entirely relevant, since the students are doing a Logic And Reasoning course, and the dissertation involves how far a person would go to save a theoretical victim of a theoretical crime. You find out at the end that the Dean was a subject of Milgram's experiment, which could suggest why he went along with his wife's study - he's still obeying authority.

But there are plot holes in this novel big enough to drive a truck through. While I don't mind being cheated cleverly, I certainly don't appreciate wasting several hours of my life on a patently absurd premise that bears no real-world resemblence. Did I obey authority by reading the book until the end? Is the joke on me? I admire that the book tried for something different, but at the end I wasn't satisfied. In fact, I was almost angry. Novels like this demonstrate a level of contempt for its readers, and that is never a good thing.

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