The Pain Scale

The Pain Scale_TylerDilts_18799777

ON A SCALE FROM ZERO TO TEN…

4 STARS

Thirteen months ago, Long Beach Homicide Detective Danny Beckett had his left hand all but severed at the wrist when a murderer wielding a wicked machete-type combat knife attacked him. Multiple operations later, Beckett still has his hand and about 90% of its function. But he also has chronic pain, not just a continual ache or a low-pulsing throb, but a shooting fire that consumes his left arm, at its worst, from the scar on his wrist to the cords of his neck.

Beckett has only been back at work for three weeks when his first major case hits. The daughter-in-law of the area Representative to the U.S. Congress has been brutally murdered along with her two young children. In addition, the floor safe has been ripped out of the master bedroom’s closet and is nowhere to be found.

The children were shot multiple times but were not brutalized like their mother. Therefore, Beckett and his partner, Jennifer Tanaka, first consider robbery with an opportunity for a side of sadistic rape topped off by collateral damage to be the initial scenario. The husband has a 3000-mile alibi and is now, presumably, a basket case and held at arm’s length from police interrogation by his attorney. And then, within hours of the Congressman being notified of the deaths, the FBI shows up.

Surprisingly, the two-man FBI team is cooperative and, out of stereotype, does not want control of the investigation. All they ask is to be copied in on all reports and findings. But when DNA results on the trace found under the mother’s fingernails come back within 3 days instead of 3 months, Beckett and Tanaka know that someone, probably the Congressman with the help of the FBI team, is pulling a lot of strings. At this point the team decides to be extra careful concerning what goes in their reports.

The DNA evidence leads to a low-level Ukrainian mobster who soon gives up his partner in the crime. Knowing whom these men work for, Beckett now surmises that the death of the woman is a murder-for-hire with the contents of the safe being the reason for both the murder and the sadistic rape. The question now is who contracted with their boss for the hit.

However, when the stakeout on the Ukrainian’s partner coincides with a sniper hit on that same person the moment he steps into view, Beckett and Tanaka have another question to answer. It seems they have a leak – or, worse yet – they have someone using the Patriot Act to monitor their computers and their phones.

At this point, the team goes to burner phones, shutting their personal phones off in the field to foil remote GPS surveillance. Then they shift their computer work to the private, camouflaged digs of the detective who specializes in electronics research for the team. But they are not experienced enough in the field of special ops to evade those who are. Soon, more hurt, pain and death are upon them, not only to several persons of interest but also to a member of their own team. Finding the puppet master has now become personal as well as professional.

Tyler Dilts has used Beckett’s chronic, fiery pain as the structure, the virtual backbone, upon which this second book of the series is built. Everything, from the sectional headings to the chapter titles to Beckett’s every motivation relates to the pain scale. His realizations, his rationalizations, even his relationship with his partner, Tanaka, revolve first and foremost around his ever-present, ever-fluctuating level of pain. Even his nightmares are focused on the pain in his arm and the only way he knows to end that pain forever.

Dilts writes the character of Beckett as a man who is often quite self-aware and who takes responsibility for his opinions and his behaviors. He is not perfect, saintly or a martyr; he simply will not lie to himself. And while he rarely wallows in self-pity, he will wallow in Vicodin and vodka if it will dull the pain in his arm and give him just the briefest respite of sleep.

The theme of chronic pain is not restricted to Beckett in the storyline. The author also weaves that theme from the emotional paralysis of the bereft husband through the dying friendship and professional partnership between Beckett and Tanaka. Then it travels on to the mental and physical ravages of cancer that has beset the retired detective who has befriended Beckett during his convalescence.

But don’t think for a moment that this story is filled with whining and crying and oh-woe-is-me. In the end, it is a story about how one horrible event serves as the catalyst that pushes Beckett to stop focusing on the pain, be it from his wife’s death or from his arm. And it is a story of how he must use the pain and move with it in order to get past it, so that he can not only survive, but live.

In that vein, two passages within the story symbolize the play within the play, so to speak, that Dilts has crafted to compare the unbidden pain inflicted by another person versus unbidden pain inflicted by one’s own body.

The first comes from the scene where Harlan, the retired detective, has just received test results from his doctor, while the second comes from the scene after Harlan survives surgery:

Beckett: “What if I don’t want to play the banjo [as physical therapy]?”

Harlan: “What if I don’t want stomach cancer?”

Beckett: “I thought you couldn’t play [the banjo] anymore. Because of the pain [from arthritis]. It doesn’t hurt?”

Harlan: “It does. But the pain’s different now.”

***DEFINITE SPOILER FOLLOWS***

My only complaint with Dilts’ crafting of the story line, and I dropped one star from the rating for it, is one sentence, spoken by Beckett, early in the work: “When my wife, Megan, died, she was pregnant and hoping for a girl.” You wouldn’t think that 13 words could contain so much damage that it could lower a book’s rating, but in those 13 words, Dilts radically changes the backstory of Beckett’s deceased wife.

In the previous entry in this series, in very specific and detailed scenes, we are told that when Megan burned to death in the accident, she was on her way to visit her mother, the ONLY person she had told about her pregnancy. And she was not hoping for a girl, she was seriously considering an abortion. The only way Beckett even finds out about the pregnancy is through the autopsy results.

It is the grief and the guilt of losing a wife whom he didn’t even know was leaving him and the grief over losing a child he didn’t even know existed that formed the backbone of Beckett’s character in that first book. Therefore, those 13 words in this entry are a complete contradiction and that contradiction stands out as bright as a neon sign on the Vegas Strip.

An author simply cannot deviate from the biographical and demographic data he establishes for a character in the baseline novel of a series. He can add to it, but he cannot delete something as if it never existed. Nor can he change one thing into something else entirely – not a birth date, not a physical condition, not one word of previously published dialogue.

To do so, to be even superficially careless in this regard, will cost the trust of the dedicated mystery reader. That reader is already looking for the lies and obfuscations of the characters, and he does not need, or even wish, to navigate a minefield of author-based errata. It might be an old and oft-used statement, but that does not make the words “the devil is in the details” any less the truth.

Cover Art From Goodreads

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