Jack Morgan, Peter Knight, Dan Carter, Chris Schneider, Craig Gisto, Santosh Wagh, Joey Montague, Matteo Ricci, et al (Private)

Created by James Patterson, Maxine Paetro, Mark Sullivan, Mark Pearson, Michael White, Ashwin Sanghi, Rees Jones, Jassy Mackenzie, Adam Hamdy, et al

I‘ve heard so many bad and even cruel things from writers and readers whom I generally respect about James Patterson‘s writing–tempered by equally effusive but vague praise by diehard fans–that I really had little real interest in reading any of his books.

Plus, I’d been underwhelmed by the movies based on his Alex Cross books, and I really don’t do serial killer novels, which seemed to be his stock in trade. So it was an easy squabble to avoid.

But when the marketing guru-turned-publishing sensation released Private (2010), a novel about a private detective and his globe-spanning private detective agency, I couldn’t ignore the giant elephant in the room any longer.

Question is, who’s gonna clean up after the elephant?

It’s not Private‘s predictableness, exactly, that bothers me so much as the fact it all seems so cynical and calculated; so far from any expectations I had for the world’s best selling writer. This isn’t a case of “tried-but-failed” so much as a case of “Why bother? They’ll buy it anyway.”

So let’s get this straight: Private (2010) is a cheesy, plodding concoction of patchwork storytelling that isn’t leavened in the least by its oh-so-calculated, saw-it-coming plot turns or allegedly exciting scenes of sex and violence.

It’s as generic as the name of its hero.

None of which means it can’t be enjoyable, of course. Because it is. But I expected a little more.

Former Marine (he served in Afghanistan) and CIA agent JACK MORGAN runs the Los Angeles-based Private, the “world’s most effective investigation firm.” With their cutting edge technology, vast resources and offices all over the world employing some of the planet’s most effective investigators, forensic specialists and legal minds, the agency is uniquely posed to handle even the most intimate and daunting problems of some of the world’s most powerful and influential people.

And there’s certainly enough here to keep Jack busy. There’s a multi-million dollar NFL gambling scandal that involves an old family friend, the joy killings of numerous schoolgirls, the murder of a former lover and assorted family problems for Jack and his minions to wade through.

But they all have about as much depth as a paper cup. We’re told they’re smart. We’re told they’re sexy. We’re told they’re dedicated and relentless. We’re told they’re haunted and troubled. We’re told a lot of things.

But I didn’t buy a word of it.

Sure, things happen. Lotsa things. But they rarely seem to have much to do with anything. Characters, mostly drawn in broad, almost cartoonish strokes, wander in and out of the narrative seemingly at random, dragging their preposterous soap-operish backstories along with them (every character has one, it seems, and few of them have anything to do with the story), and although people get killed all over the place, there’s little sense of danger, or even excitement. All those plot twists are supposed to drive the story, but we care so little for these cardboard characters — and the alleged “twists” are so poorly foreshadowed — that they’re more irritating than engaging; dropped in from outer space, perhaps. The agency’s chief detective tools, despite all the lovingly listed equipment and incredible expertise on hand, seems to be trite coincidence and luck. It’s the literary equivalent of an Aaron Spelling crime show: all slick, shiny surface and no grit or depth.

Yet, as we’re so often told, the astoundingly prolific James Patterson has had more New York Times bestsellers than any other writer, sometimes as many as six or seven a year. Or more. And sure, his first novel, The Thomas Berryman Number (1976) won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, but that was a long, long time ago, and Patterson’s come a long, long way since then. Forget awards–his books (or at least books with his name on them) have sold more than 180 million copies, and he’s still cranking them out, although how much he actually contributes any of these co-authored books he’s “written” lately–including Private–is anybody’s guess.

My own guess is that he gives his co-authors a very brief plot outline and tells them to fill in the blanks. It’s not so much writing as playing Mad Libs, and then publishing the result. Perhaps he saves his best stuff for his Alex Cross series, which he apparently writes on his own.

But what the hell do I know? Private sold a skedillion copies and spawned yet another hugely successful series under the Patterson byline.

It wasn’t long before a sequel appeared, entitled Private: #1 Suspect (2012) and again featuring Jack. And then we were off to the races.

Another one, Private Games (2012), this one co-authored by a Mark Sullivan and featuring PETER KNIGHT of the London Branch, appeared just a month later, with more books featuring even more far-flung operatives of Private threatened. So far we’ve been treated to the adventures of DAN CARTER, head of the London Branch, CHRIS SCHNEIDER, out of Berlin and CRAIG GISTO, who opens the Sydney franchise with a swank launch party overlooking the legendary Opera House. Then there’s Private India: City on Fire (2014), featuring Mumbai operative SANTOSH WAGH.

More recently Patterson has stepped up his game, collaborating with authors you may have actually heard of: Jassy Mackenzie, creator of popular South African eye Jade de Jong was brought in to co-write an adventure featuring Johanesburg operative JOEY MONTAGUE in Private: Gold (2017), and he and Philly cheesesteak Duane Swierczynski have co-written a non-Private P.I. novel, Lion & Lamb, which was published in 2023.

It’s hard not to view the Private agency as the McDonald’s of detective agencies, with franchises sprouting up all over, offering “the best detectives in the business, cutting edge technology and offices around the globe.” Just as it’s difficult not to think of Patterson as the literary equivalent of a Quarter Pounder with Cheese, there is no investigation company quite like Private.

I’m sure this cash cow will be milked for a long, long time, Patterson’s name prominently rubber-stamped on the cover and a long line of ever-changing “co-authors” appearing in smaller type right below, each featuring the exploits of yet another operative from yet another of Private’s far-flung branches.

And don’t get me wrong–I like James Patterson. He’s stands up for authors, and donates a ton of dough to libraries and literacy programs. And he seems to be a genuinely nice guy to boot. I like almost everything about him. But most of his books don’t do anything for me.




Report respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

Leave a Reply