Monday, January 7, 2013

The 19th Element / John Betcher

Reviewed by: Keith Nixon

Genre: Thriller

Approximate word count: 70-75,000

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John Betcher practiced law for more than twenty five years before he turned to writing. He has published three Becker mysteries, among others.

More can be found about John Betcher on his website.


An Al Qaeda terrorist cell plots to attack a nuclear power plant in the US heartland. Only one man, James Becker, can stop disaster happening.


What’s the point of a thriller? Well, I guess the clue is in the word itself. Unfortunately there were many issues with The 19th Element from a contrived plot (an Al Qaeda attack on a nuclear power plant?!) that never got out of second gear, to weak characters, and odd dialogue.

First is Becker himself who failed to convince me of his credentials. He’s ex-secret service, but then describes himself as wealthy because he invented a new bullet that can kill people at 1.5 miles (great!). He also has an unused degree – this and the money mean he’s been able to change profession and still act undercover (although independently of the government) but seems able to call in favours at will, like bringing in two Apache helicopters to take out the bad guys at just the right moment.

The writing isn’t bad, it’s just overly descriptive and ponderous. It’s ‘tell’ instead of ‘show’, observation instead of participation. For example, Becker gets into a fight at one point, it felt like I was watching the process from afar. When Jack Reacher fights, he fights, you feel every punch, every injury, adrenalin pumps. Unfortunately not with Becker. I wanted to put on my pyjamas and go to bed with a hot water bottle.

There were quite a few examples of this over use of tell. Remember the unused degree and new job. From the following, can you guess what Becker does?

‘Today was Wednesday and I was at my office. Becker Law Office. James L. Becker, Attorney-at-Law.’

Um, I think he’s an attorney? But I could be wrong.

On occasion, there were long, bulleted and descriptive lists. Once Becker described everything he was carrying on a mission. So what? Then there was the whole set of instructions to take off in a B-24. Why?

Then there were continuity errors. Most, but not all, chapters started with some or all of the time, date, and location. In the early chapters, the date jumped around. It was May 8th, then the 6th, back to the 8th, then the 7th, then to 1979 (this chapter didn’t have a date description though!). It was difficult to keep an eye on. Sometimes you’d be informed that it was 3 am, then be immediately told this again the first line of the chapter. Or you’d be told you were on the plane, it’s obvious. We know where Becker is because he hasn’t moved. Tell, not show.

Also, a couple of sub-plots seemed thrown in. A Mongolian, part of a gang Becker took down in his past, follows his daughter on campus. He races to save her. There’s also some Al Qaeda observer early on that’s explained away at the end, tied into the Mongolian.

Finally, the style changed in some chapters. When in the nuclear plant scenes all of the dialogue is written as if it’s a screenplay. Why? For interest perhaps. If so, it didn’t work. It made the dialogue clunky.

So overall a disappointing read. The 19th Element promised much but failed to deliver. I needed much more ‘thrill!’ and a lot less ‘er?’


Nothing relevant.

Format/Typo Issues:

Chapters did not start on a new page.

Several typos and format errors.

Rating: ** Two Stars.

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