Score: 90/100 (9.0 out of 10)
“The Other Side of Good” is a solid crime-thriller/drama with an intriguing premise, some memorable characters, and meaningful stakes!
Two dynamically opposed characters team up to take on the most evil organization known to the multiverse: modeling agencies.
The premise of this novel is actually extremely intriguing. Crime lord Theo Jackson and officer/detective Denton Jones, two former friends, are prompted by the mayor to touch bases en route to the building of a new youth center in their old neighborhood. Jackson has cleverly avoided arrest nearly his entire life, yet his reputation as the most powerful kingpin in Cincinnati precedes him. Jones has fought his whole life to be in the up and up—to be the best person and police officer he can be. No two people could be more different, yet the two are united in purpose when they discover that an underground human-trafficking ring is being run in their city by a powerful and feared Chinese syndicate known as the Santu.
Like the Yakuza after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, or Al Capone during the Great Depression, Jackson and his gang are prompted to help their community.
Doesn't that just sound great? Doesn't that just sound like a TV show in the making? It is, indeed, a good story, but could it have been a great story? It never really reaches its full potential. Not even close. And there are even times when the novel seems to self-sabotage. We'll get back to that later.
We are suckers for good crime thrillers. Prison Break and Breaking Bad are among our favorite TV shows now, and The Dark Knight is definitely one of our favorite films. Something that all of these do well (and that this novel attempts) is showing how bad (or even very bad) people can do good things, and vice versa; and also how gray the line between good and evil can be. Some of the most interesting parts of those stories is when the very good people have to work with despicable folks to take down the worst of the worst or toward a common purpose. For example, Michael in Prison Break was a good man with good intentions, but in breaking his innocent brother out of prison he worked with and unleashed several career criminals including multiple serial killers. As a consequence, a lot of innocent people were hurt or died. Walter White in Breaking Bad initially wanted to provide for his family knowing that he didn't have long to live due to his diagnosis, but in doing so he became the feared drug-lord Heisenberg, even willing to manipulate his friends and family for his own ends. The thing we're getting at is that this story is nowhere at the level of a Prison Break or a Breaking Bad. It's actually pretty generic by comparison. And maybe that's not the fairest comparison. These were huge stories with huge budgets. The writers must've made a fortune. But the fact remains: does this story really stand out above the average crime thriller or crime drama? Well, it's probably better written than most, but all in all, it really doesn't.
There are times when it just feels hollow—like there could've been something there to grasp onto, but there just isn't. And that takes us back to our point about how this novel sabotages itself. What could've been a very powerful and very personal love-hate relationship between Jackson and Jones built upon decades and decades of history is actually nothing close to that. It was essentially a fling. They were friends once many, many years ago. There really wasn't much between them before this story. It's not like you can't turn the “some guy” trope into something meaningful and great. Look at how Peeta was handled by Suzanne Collins in the Hunger Games series. Peeta was just some guy the protagonist saw in the community who did something nice for her a long time ago. Until the Games, he was really nothing but a sentimental little memory to her. Jackson and Jones just don't mesh with nearly the same chemistry. No, we aren't saying they needed to be a couple or something, but any buddy cop story will show you that there needs to be actual chemistry in the pairing.
Part of that might just be that Jones is such a vanilla character. He is boringly vanilla. And you know what? Jackson can be boringly vanilla too. We are constantly reminded of the charitable work he does, how good a person he actually is, the fact that he won't betray Jones even when given a chance, the fact that he doesn't have so much as a parking ticket on his record. He has (or is given) an excuse for any potentially bad deed he has ever done, often involving comparing his decisions and actions to that of democratic governments or law enforcement. Yes, these moments of comparison are some of the most interesting parts of the novel, but it loses its effect when you can almost hear the author screaming through the pages, “Don't hate this guy! He's not so bad!” Ok, we get it! We got it the first six or seven times you told us. We got it by like page three.
Why couldn't this novel have just started with Jackson in ACTION? Why couldn't Jones have been chasing a criminal following a deal gone south only to realize that it was his childhood friend? What a missed opportunity! Instead, we just get these two talking and talking and talking. Just a boatload of exposition.
Another character who never lives up to his full potential is Sun Yi, the local leader of the Santu and the main antagonist of the story, at least in terms of being the most active. It was clear that Yi's whole character concept was supposed to save this plot. He was supposed to be the living manifestation of the evil, exploitative organization that unites the odd couple in purpose. The fact of the matter is: he only accomplishes this because the plot calls for it. He is ultimately nothing special as a character. In fact, he's a full-fledged paper tiger whimpering in a corner afraid of the law and his bosses. He is quite literally a pathetic man, nowhere near the formidable foe this story required to be truly great. Now you might be saying: well, what kinda man would do the kinds of things that Yi does? A pathetic man. A man with no morals or scruples, right? Ok, fine, but you know what made Colonel Tavington in The Patriot and Joker in The Dark Knight such great villains? Because despite being despicable pieces of crap, they were actually a threat to the protagonists. They didn't crumble like a house of cards once the protagonists enacted their plans.
And there's another thing: the planning. Why does this 300-page thriller feel like a 500-page fantasy novel? Why is there a big huge chunk in the center of this that consists mostly of people talking, and talking, and talking when we already know enough about the plot and its characters for it to get on with itself? Get on with it already! How complicated is it? Two dudes—one good and one kinda bad—need to work together to stop this really-bad-dude's human trafficking ring. Why does a 300-page thriller need an epilogue that needs to resolve every character thread and sub-quest that was ever introduced? Again, is this a thriller or is it some kinda epic fantasy novel?!
Another thing that really shouldn't be so hilariously irritating about this book (because it's absolutely no laughing matter) is just the amount of hyperbole used to describe the incredibly dark and important subject matter. This ranges from characters saying “enslavement is the worst crime anyone can commit against another human” to “[n]o sane person would identify human trafficking as anything but the worst crime in the universe. It's up there at the top of any list for 'bad.'” Ok, Shakespeare. Look, again, it's not that the author is wrong, it's just that when it comes to CHARACTERS talking like ACTUAL HUMAN BEINGS in a STORY, this is just short of “Anakin, Chancellor Palpatine is evil!” We should be crying. We should be horrified. Instead, we are utterly distracted by the heavy-handedness and dogmatism every time the author's voice possesses a character regarding this subject.
Did he really have to up the ante to universal scale? Are there cosmic freaking alien space pirates kicking down Earth 616's door to enslave humanity and ship them to Frieza planet 419? The last we remember, this was a story about two dudes in Cincinnati trying to stop a crime syndicate from doing despicable things. With this hyperbolic writing, you've got us conjuring images of UFOs abducting Farmer John to be probed.
What makes it worse is that almost every time a character makes one of these hyperbolic statements, they then make an exception, saying something like, "but because..." or "however... in this case..."
Can you show the reader how bad the practice is without telling them? Can you connect us emotionally with any of the young victims from the beginning of the novel? It just feels like such a missed opportunity. This story was so close to being a home-run. Seriously. If only a beta reader had just been real with the author instead of resorting to endless, unadulterated butt kissing, and just told him, “DUDE! Your story is a TV show in the making. Just build some actual history between Jones and Jackson. Make Yi actually formidable. Show don't tell. We don't need all of this hyperbole about how bad this practice is, that's what your public service announcement at the end is for. And please, for the love of goodness sakes, just get on with it already!”
Yes, we recommend this novel!