Simon & Schuster
$25.00, hardcover, 368 pages
Also available as Ebook ($8.99)
Release date: July 5, 2011
In 1994, nine English majors met for a night class at Jasper College. What made the night class special was its professor: Richard Aldiss, a convicted murderer. The nine students are given the task of discovering the identity of reclusive, renowned author Paul Fallows.
Years later, after the class resulted in Aldiss’ acquittal and the revelation of Fallows’ identity, the students reunite at a funeral. One of their classmates was murdered in an eerie imitation of the crimes of which Aldiss was accused.
Dominance by Will Lavender keeps both timelines in the air smoothly by focusing on Alex Shipley. In 1994, she’s the student responsible for solving the 1994 mysteries. In present day, she’s a Harvard professor. The reputation from her student days lead the police and Jasper officials to ask her to help solve the current crime.
That should be the signal that Dominance is not a piece of literature, that it’s nothing more than a Lifetime movie in book form. How Lavender juggles the two stories, however, makes it a little more than that, requiring a little more from readers expecting a James-Patterson-esque mystery to leave behind on the airplane or forget after reading. The final twist of Dominance makes it a novel readers won’t soon forget.
In 1994, the students don’t know what’s about to happen to them. In the present, they’ve all lived through it and don’t need to discuss it in detail. Lavender cleverly avoids exposition traps by doling out information almost on a need-to-know basis.
For example, the night class introduces the students to a game known as the Procedure. They refer to it in the present day setting as well. The rules of the game or how the students are involved remain unclear for a good while. Lavender explains it at exactly the right time, when readers are just about to give up caring about the game out of frustration. Granted, the game is odd and it’s hard to picture anyone taking it as seriously as its proponents, but, at the same time, it’s popular on college campuses where young adults may be more indulgent. That is, it’s popular on Lavender’s fictional campuses, although it’s not far fetched to see it catching on in reality.
The biggest problem with the game is its dependence on Fallows. Although the author is a central part of the mysteries, Lavender doesn’t do much to establish why he carries such importance in modern literature and why his works would captivate students so.
Aside from Alex and Aldiss (who although innocent of murder seems capable of everything else and more of which he’s accused), many of the characters blend into each other. The grieving widow, herself a former member of the class, appears on scene only to cry and serve as a brief red herring. That’s not a spoiler; it’s evident she’s never really a suspect. Another classmate appears to serve only as a sexual diversion. Alex’s former boyfriend is a little more fleshed out, but not fully enough to prevent some contradictions. Oddly, the minor character who does stand out is Daniel Hayden, one of the students. Hayden dies between 1994 and the current story, but his behavior in 1994 makes him someone Lavender should used as an example for how to create the remaining characters.
These flaws don’t matter all that much. Dominance remains an entertaining and suspenseful read. Lavender builds tension, increasing the stakes as the novel progresses. Readers can’t sit back and wait for the answers to the novel’s central mysteries to be handed to them. As Alex investigates each time’s mystery, every piece of information leads to the next, with clues intertwining across time. Sometimes the characters miss obvious connections, but there’s plenty for the reader to have to work to figure out. Much like Aldiss points his students in the right direction (or occasional wrong direction) and leaves it to them to identify and answer the correct question, Dominance expects its readers to do the same.
Not all answers readers come up with turn out to be correct. And the last pages of Dominance have the potential to cast the previous pages in a new light. A re-read promises a new experience.
Dominance is an above-average summer read. Pages will turn quickly.