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Spotlight on: Sleeping Policemen by Dale Bailey and Jack Slay, Jr.

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Sleeping Policemen by Dale Bailey and Jack Slay, Jr. Dale Bailey and Jack Slay, Jr., Sleeping Policemen

A "sleeping policeman" is a speed bump, and that's what Nick Laymon thinks he and his friends have hit when they run over something while tearing down a Tennessee back road on their way home from a strip joint. With Warren Zevon blasting on the stereo, Nick and his fellow Ransom College buddies Finney Durant and Reed Tucker are barely even aware of it when their Acura plows into a stumbling dark figure. Once they decide to go back, and see that they've killed a man, all they know about forensics from watching CSI runs through their minds and they make a joint decision to flee.

But not before they have searched the man's coat and found a roll of hundred-dollar bills and the key to a bus station locker. Finney and Tucker's families are comfortably wealthy (a fact that feeds Nick's insecurities throughout the book), so they turn both the money and the key over to their financially struggling friend.

Nick eagerly accepts and immediately begins planning a future far different from the one he expected to have -- one that includes thousands of dollars, and possibly more. Once Nick's girlfriend, Sue Thompson, agrees to go along with their story, Nick begins to feel a little more secure ... at least until a State Trooper knocks on his door.

Sleeping Policemen is the kind of book every reviewer fears, because there's nothing really special about it. Superlatives come easy for great books, and insults certainly make trashing a bad one fun, but a book that is simply okay practically ceases the word flow entirely.

And that's where the trouble lies: Sleeping Policemen is not a great novel, but neither is it an awful one. There are a few things that recommend it: a reader looking for suspense, even horror, will find it here in spades. In fact, the book occasionally borders on parody in how it embraces its plethora of genre cliches. Overused tropes featured here include the body in the middle of a deserted road; the mysterious key; the homemade snuff-film videotape; the psycho cop; the impassive, all-powerful underworld crime lord (with a combined nod to The Maltese Falcon and The Elephant Man) -- even the antagonist who just won't die!

But cliche is forgivable when the characters are deeply written and interesting. Unfortunately, Bailey and Slay have peopled Sleeping Policemen with thinly-drawn nobodies who are hard to care about. Their characters are mostly a combination of physical attributes and "country" dialogue (while some mysteriously don't have Southern accents -- what's going on there?). The most interesting ones are those who are outrageous, but you can't fill a book with outrageous characters alone; the reader has to have someone to relate to, to live the story along with.

Nick Laymon is supposed to be that character. Unfortunately, he is little more than a bushel-basket of insecurities based on things he can't control, like Sue's previous relationship with Finney, and his own lack of money. His "transformation" into a man of action from one of inaction is made less remarkable by his original lack of solidity in the beginning. Does he truly care about anyone besides himself? What intends to be a character study (I can see the signs of it peppered throughout the text) ends up a barely passable thriller.

Golden Gryphon have produced a number (almost 50 at this writing) of fine, collectable, affordable hardcovers over the past few years (with trade paperbacks produced later of the best-sellers), and Sleeping Policemen certainly looks good on the shelf. The wraparound art by John Picacio is beautifully rendered (is that supposed to be Demi Moore?), and makes even more sense after you've read the pages between. Though the book could have used another round of proofreading, with one paragraph in particular containing three easily avoidable errors, what has truly failed them this time around is the content. Slay is new to the novel game, but Bailey is an award-winning author with four previous books under his belt. So, what happened here? It's hard to pinpoint the exact places where the story doesn't work, and it's frustrating to see such a promising concept sputter like this. I have seen collaborations like this suffer from two authors who, to use a theatrical metaphor, just aren't on the same page, so maybe it was an issue of conflicting intentions, because these two writers (both of whose work I have read before, individually) should have been able to come up with something better than this.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2006. Reprinted with permission.

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