Eyes Wide Open: A Novel by Andrew Gross (Harper Fiction, $9.99, 437 pages)
“A horrible family tragedy that may not be what it seems…”
Location, location, location… They say that these are the three most important factors in real estate, and on occasion location, location, location matters in fiction, also. Take this novel, Eyes Wide Open, by Andrew Gross (author of Reckless). You will probably enjoy this thriller of a crime story if you’ve visited at least two of the three California locations in which the action takes place: Morro Bay (misspelled as Morrow Bay on the back cover), San Luis Obispo and Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, near the California-Oregon border. Since I’ve visited all three – the first for play; the latter two for work – it was easy to visualize the scenes in this novel.
In the tale (based on something that happened in real life to the author’s family), our protagonist Jay Erlich – a New York State-based physician – learns that his nephew has apparently committed suicide by jumping off the famed 600-foot high volcanic rock in Morro Bay. At the request of his troubled older brother Charlie, Erlich flies out to the calm, coastal community to see if what the police have reported is correct. Early on it’s clear that someone is covering something up, as there are problems with the official story.
Charlie Erlich was once a chart-topping musician, but then he fell in with a wild group of drug users in Marin County. And this is where the story telling goes a bit sideways. It’s immediately obvious to the reader that Charlie was once a member of the Charles Manson Family, but here Manson is fictionalized as the “leering and wild-eyed” person known as Russell Houvanian. [Houvanian, of course, is first imprisoned at San Quentin before being moved to Pelican Bay – just like Charles Manson.] The author devotes page after page to recreating the events surrounding the Manson Family, but for some strange reason moves them from Ventura and Los Angeles counties to Marin and Santa Barbara counties.
I have no idea why Gross spent so much time and energy in transforming Manson into a fictional character. But instead of adding to the story, it significantly detracts from it. It’s as if I were to write a novel about the first Irish-American Catholic president elected in the 1960s, a character that I decide to name John McNeal. McNeal, in my story, has a brother named Richard who happens to be the U.S. Attorney General, and another brother, Ned, who is a United States senator from Massachusetts. It wouldn’t take long for the reader to ask the questions, “Why not just set this period novel among the Kennedys? Why fictionalize actual events and real people?”
While the author’s credibility takes a hit with his strangely and loosely disguised historical events, the story itself is engaging. Lives are at risk and it’s up to Doctor Erlich to become an instant, skilled criminal investigator in order to figure out which authority figures are telling the truth and which are lying to protect their own reputations. As with the novels of David Baldacci, Joseph Finder and Michael Connelly, events speed up rapidly as the conclusion approaches, and it all ends in an almost breathless fashion.
Once you’ve finished Eyes Wide Open, you may want to check on the availability of a room at The Inn at Morro Bay. Just make sure to be very careful if you decide to climb the famed rock of Morro Bay!
A review copy was provided by the publisher. “Should be read with the lights on and the door closed. A rare and menacing psychological thriller…” Nelson DeMille.
Note: Morro Bay is actually 576 feet high. Although it’s illegal to climb it, as per Wikipedia, “every few years someone is caught trying to climb the rock.”