Derailed

“Derailed” isn’t a good book, a good thriller, a good anything; this novel has more holes than a slice of Swiss cheese. Siegel is a poor writer in just about every regard. His analogies and metaphors are bizarrely off— it’s like something translated from another language. His prose is so thin, so conversationally dull, that you find yourself skipping over it, not bothering to process the words, because there is nothing to process. It feels like a story from a drunk at a bar, where you goad him on to get to the good parts. His plot manages to be both totally derivative and also lacking in sufficient misadventures for his beleaguered hero. As a book it’s a total airport read: take it in, have a laugh, throw it away. But as a movier

As a movie it has a lot more promise. Books like this – which are essentially movie-ready screen treatments – aren’t bought for their prose or insight or their smarts. They’re bought for their set-ups, and “Derailed” has an excellent one. It has what every thriller needs to succeed: a plot that puts an average man in extraordinary circumstances and makes that man dance, as Fate fires gunshots at his feet.

In this case, the added giddiness is that the man cannot go to the police. He’s just cheated on his wife for the first time in a seedy hotel when someone pushes him back into the room, brandishing a gun, and relieves him of his money. When the crook realizes what is happening here – that these are two married people having an affair – he rapes the woman repeatedly, knowing they can’t reveal what happened without revealing it to their spouses. Together, Charles and Lucinda (the woman, who he met on the train) decide that they can’t let their spouses find out and move on with their lives. But the crook, a guy named Vasquez, calls up Charles for a loan. A loan he has to give to save his own marriage and Lucinda’s. The first loan is for $10,000, which Charles takes out of a fund he keeps for his severely diabetic daughter, and the second is for $100,000. When Charles refuses to pay for the second, Vasquez abducts Lucinda and hurts her. That gets Charles to dip deeper into his sick kid’s fund and he pays Vasquez off. Only there are more complications: all stories like this must have a scene where our hero disposes of a body, and this is no different. As it turns out, Charles’ disposal – of a man he wanted to “talk” to Vasquez – might come back to haunt him.

This book is a quick, harmless read – very James Patterson-esque in its short, quick-paced chapters – but it has a few major scars: the first, and most detrimental, is that you see the “twist” in the story from the very start. I’m not exaggerating, either. It’s so obvious you’d have to have been recently smacked in the head with a baseball bat not to catch it. It practically waltzes across the page in gaudy red print. Another scar: Siegel never establishes why Charles, after his daughter’s life has been put in danger, wouldn’t just say to hell with Lucinda, it was horrible that this happened to her and that this will end her marriage, but I have to go to the cops. Another scar: Charles just doesn’t go through enough. He has to dispose of a body, yeah, and that’s pretty scary, but even that scene doesn’t have any real suspense to it. This guy has to jump through bigger and crazier hoops. Another scar: Siegel is unable, even in an infinitesimal way, to evoke what makes New York the city it is, and his thugs speak like no thugs have ever spoken. One uses the word “crimey.” Another scar: a whopping logic gap during the penultimate confrontation between Charles and Vasquez. Check this out: Charles has gone native, away from his wife and daughter, and he’s staking out where he knows Vasquez will be shaking down his latest victim (I won’t get too specific, not to ruin the “surprise”). He needs to know what room this is happening in. So he goes to the bellhop, who he knows is in on the deal(!), and bribes him with two hundred bucks. Did Charles think this guy wasn’t going to come upstairs and get involvedr That he’d let his partner in crime get screwed over in their conr It was just about the weirdest thing you’ve ever read. And the final scar: the book veers off into a pointless, too-long epilogue that reads like “The Contortionist’s Handbook’s” ugly, totally ordinary brother. You want the confrontation with Vasquez to build to a point and explode, giving us a finale to what we’ve been embroiled in, but that’s not the case.

This novel is being adapted by hot-new-thing Stu Beattie (whose “Collateral” got Michael Mann and Tom Cruise to sign on to that film) and will be directed by Mikael Hafstrom (making his English-language debut). I think, as a movie, “Derailed” is in pretty good shape. Beattie has a lot of work cut out for himself, but he has that great hook to open his story: regular guy, extraordinary circumstances, can’t go to the cops, is stuck in a frustrating, dangerous position. My hope is that Beattie leaves most of the plot behind and creates his own obstacles. I don’t mind Charles having to get rid of a dead body – and I like when he turns the tables – but for this to feel like anything but one of a million thrillers they show on late-night cable, Beattie is going to have to heighten the suspense. He should also lose or alter the “twist” in the story. And get rid of the prologue and epilogue. In the novel the story starts at the end: Charles working as an English teacher in prison, watching as a student turns in assignments which feature his story of blackmail. The idea that we know Charles lives through his experience, to say the least, makes any danger he’s in innocuous.

My hope is that Beattie went radically to the left here, and dropped Charles’ job as an ad man (where he got in on an illegal deal to pay off Vasquez), the constant mewling over his sick daughter, and everything else that takes away from his desperate quest to get this guy off his back. Charles is an animal backed into a corner. He needs to spring forward with a self-preservation-inspired intensity. In the novel, his attempt to fight back gets someone else hurt, but Charles stays undamaged. It should be Charles that takes the wound, so that when he’s running around, sweating, it’s his own life that he’s trying to save, and not that of his wife and daughter. I want everything to escalate until Charles has blood on his hands, and it doesn’t take his family kicking him out of the house to get him in motion.

I can’t say what Beattie has done, but I’d gladly bet my money he’s improved this story. I’m guessing he simply had to, because Siegel’s plot tap-dances forward, without giving you much to chew on, before flying off the edge for an ending that doesn’t quite jibe.

On the casting end, Charles is depthless enough to be perfect for any middle-aged movie star. You can take your pick: George Clooney, Richard Gere, Tom Cruise. It’s open to anyone. And though we’re told later she’s Hispanic, which isn’t clear at first, I couldn’t get “The Practice’s” Rhona Mitra out of my head for Lucinda.

Thrillers are usually the best type of trash, because they get your metabolism going, make you ingest junk food, and usually have the means to take things to that absurdly lovely level where we can question ourselves on what we’d do in the same situation.

“Derailed” suggests that with this powerful set-up. And if Beattie took the story apart and put it back together again, and Mr. Hafstrom (whose “Evil” I’ve never seen) knows how to stretch a scene taut, so that when it pops it makes you hop out of your seat, there’s no telling what kind of high-caloric feast we might have. “Derailed,” a novel written by James Siegel and published by Warner Books, was released in hardcover February 2003.

Rating: A-
Share