L.A. Mental

  • Neil McMahon
  • Harper
  • 304 pp.

Mind-altering nano particles, Hollywood moviemaking and family blackmail color this head-spinning techno-thriller.

Reviewed by Lawrence De Maria 

It is daunting to review a book blurbed — above the title, no less — by James Patterson, especially when that fiction industrialist (or industrial fictionist?) gushes: “L.A. Mental caught my interest immediately and held it until the last page. A very cool concept beautifully executed.”

Undaunted, and ungushed, let us proceed, pausing only to point out that Patterson recently co-authored a sci-fi book with Neil McMahon, who wrote L.A. Mental. Some blurbers, one suspects, are more objective than others.

McMahon is the sole author of six previous mysteries set in San Francisco and Montana (where he now lives) and four fantasy novels written under a pseudonym. He held a two-year creative-writing Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, nothing to sneeze at considering that Stegner alumni include such luminaries as Scott Turow, Ken Kesey, Thomas McGuane and Larry McMurtry.

That’s where the comparison must end, at least as regards L.A. Mental. A convoluted plot, involving mind-altering nano particles, radioactive jewelry, Hollywood moviemaking, family blackmail, corporate shenanigans, government agents and murder — to hit the highlights — quickly leave a reader’s head spinning, sans nanos. L.A. Mental, by the way, is being published by HarperCollins, an imprint that must have nanos on the brain (conspiracy theorists, have a ball with this thought). Harper was also the publisher of Prey, Michael Crichton’s 2002 novel that described a nano-robotic threat to the human race. Nanos may indeed be a threat to our existence, but possibly not as great as that posed by unintelligible techno-thrillers.

The book is narrated by Tom Crandall, scion of a rich and powerful California family. A psychologist, Tom has his hands full with the rest of the Crandalls, a clan that gives dysfunctional a bad name. His siblings — Nick, Paul and Erica — regularly lie, cheat and steal from each other, except when they are doing the same to others. Everyone has a dark secret, including the family matriarch, Audrey. The greatest mystery is why Tom bothers to help them out of the catastrophes they cook up. Family loyalty is all well and good, but devotion to nut cases probably should have stopped at cliff’s edge — the one brother Nick tried to pitch Tom off.

True, Nick wasn’t himself, the first of many red flags the author waves at the reader to suggest things on the Left Coast are wackier than normal. Other flags include news stories about people acting insanely, buzzards and cats going berserk, Tom’s searing headaches, strange indoor mists and, most ominously, Parallax, the company apparently involved in all the mayhem.

As any aficionado of conspiracy movies knows, Parallax was also the name of the corporation behind all the assassinations in The Parallax View, Warren Beatty’s 1974 blockbuster film. The term “parallax” refers to the perceived difference in the apparent position of something viewed along two different lines of sight. It is why someone sitting in a passenger seat looking at a speedometer thinks a car is going faster than it is. The name of the company is meant to telegraph menace and misdirection.

That’s one major problem with L.A. Mental, which is billed as a thriller. Thrillers don’t thrill when the reader can see most of the surprises coming from a mile away. The clunky first-person narrative doesn’t help. Tom Crandall, who is constantly claiming he doesn’t know anything as he unravels the many mysteries overwhelming the so-called plot, nevertheless leaps to more conclusions than a swarm of lemmings. Another problem: many of the characters in the book are despicable. Most of the rest are merely unlikeable. Readers of thrillers probably shouldn’t root for the bad guys, which in L.A. Mental they might.

A word about the writing. McMahon has a knack for descriptions, of people, places and things. That’s probably fallout from the Stegner fellowship. But it’s a hindrance in a thriller that begs for action. There’s damn little in Mental. Too much time is spent on Tom Crandall’s internal ruminations, which includes a lot of psychobabble about motivation, pseudo-science, the meaning of life and new-wave religiosity. There are too many first-person asides, and too many 200-word explanatory scenes where 50 words (or, even better, no words) would have sufficed. Readers should be allowed to judge motives, not be hit over the head with them.

There are some dead and dying bodies, just not enough of them. And the one area in which descriptions would have been welcomed is, of all things, sex. The sex scenes are sexless. Readers should probably be grateful for that, since if McMahon described sex in as much detail as he does the more mundane things of everyday life, he might be arrested.

There is some carnality, of course, but it mostly happens off camera, so to speak. A few clinches, and then, like all those scenes in movies of the 1940s, everything fades to black. In the movies, at least, Bogie and Bacall stand around the next morning, fully dressed, smoking cigarettes, looking vaguely satisfied. In L.A. Mental, lovers hint at nights of ecstasy (of the non-drug kind) and that’s about it. Considering that most of McMahon’s characters are straight out of central casting (mad scientist, scheming female executive, hot-blooded movie actress, virile leading man, etc.) and that the book was probably written with a screenplay in mind, the lack of lust is amazing.

If that’s what nanos are doing to Hollywood, call out the National Guard!

McMahon is a prolific writer, and an admittedly brief look at his earlier works, such as Twice Dying, which feature recurring protagonist Dr. Carroll Monks, a San Francisco medical investigator, suggests that his strengths lie in writing in the third person, where introspection doesn’t get in the way of a good tale.

Lawrence De Maria was a senior editor and writer at The New York Times and Forbes. His many Page 1 articles led the Times’ Pulitzer-nominated coverage of the 1987 stock market crash. He is currently living in Naples, Florida, where he writes short stories and novels, as well as book and film reviews.

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