Review: The 19th Element, by John L. Betcher

Being a writer myself, I found this book a good read. It had all of the points of a great thriller. Terrorists. Facts that are so real you can touch them. Details about how we have become so complacent in our day-to day lives that we forget how clever people who might want to harm us could be. The characters were believable and well designed.

In his novel, John shows us his main character nicknamed James (aka Beck), and his wife Beth living in the small town of Red Wing, Minnesota. James and Beth were former agents for the US government, now retired and trying to live out a peaceful life with their daughters. That is, until a terrorist group decides to blow up a nearby nuclear plant, sending poisonous gasses across half of the continent. Beck puts a series of seemingly random incidents around town together and the big picture starts to emerge. He enlists the help of several friends in the area.

The scary part is that John has done his homework. The threat of such an event happening is laid out in such stark detail that you could see how easily it could be done if we let our guard down. That’s probably the most engaging part of the whole story. It really could happen.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book. The ending was action-packed and filled with the kinds of details that kept me wanting more. But to get to this fabulous ending, I found the first half of the book to be a series of very dry, heavy loads of technical overview. The writing in the first half seemed to be written in a different point of Mr. Betcher’s writing journey in comparison to the last half of the book. In the beginning, the characters were formed very well, but the fact presentation was weak, making it more dry than enjoyable. I know that many readers who are looking for a “quick read before bed” or a treat to take on the train or commute to work will easily find themselves overwhelmed with the enormity of it all.

The second problem I have with the story is probably a matter of style. That is to say, I wouldn’t have handled some of the wording or dialogue that way. There were some stylistic choices that Mr. Betcher employed that only compounded the enormity of the first-half-info-dump. While strictly speaking, there was nothing wrong with the writing itself, these odd choices didn’t help the reader get through the dry areas. The dialogue tags should never take you out of the story. In fact, they should be nearly invisible as you read. But occasionally — I assume to increase the speed through an action or to keep the speakers straight in a room full of people — Mr. Betcher employed a more script-style format for dialogue that seemed to pull me out of the story and remind me that I was merely the reader, still in my bedroom reading a book.

A final pet-peeve (and now I really am just nit-picking) his main antagonist was named John. The author’s name is John. The protagonist’s name is James. .. Alot of very similar names throughout the book. Had they been just bit parts, I probably would have never noticed. But because we were switching from James to John (or was that John to James?) …. I frequently had to stop and re-read sections to reorient myself as to whose head I was in. Again, another simple choice that made plodding through until you get used to who-is-who more difficult.

If you are in the mood for a thriller that will leave you really thinking and watching the world around you with a fresh set of eyes, this book holds great potential. By the time I got to the end, I found that I REALLY enjoyed the story presented. Just be prepared to put in the time to see the whole story unfold, and look past some of the author’s stylistic quirks.

Pros: Great story. Realistic set-up. As scary and thought provoking as any story I’ve read in recent years.
Cons: A bit dry at times that makes plodding through difficult, and odd stylistic choices for dialogue that compounds the issue.

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