22 March 2012

Professor Bernice Summerfield and the Curse of the Standalone Novel

Hardcover, 169 pages
Published 2004
Acquired January 2012

Read March 2012
Professor Bernice Summerfield #6: The Big Hunt
by Lance Parkin

Back at the beginning of its Bernice Summerfield series, Big Finish Productions published five paperback novels.  The first two were dull romps (but then, they were by Justin Richards and Stephen Cole, so you ought to expect little else), while the last three demonstrated a rise in quality.  None of them sold particularly well, though, and the line was cancelled.  Three years later, Big Finish took another stab at a Bernice novel line, launching with Lance Parkin's The Big Hunt.

The Big Hunt was apparently designed to stand alone, and presumably attract new readers, or at least readers who had fallen away.  There's little reference to the recent harrowing events in Benny's life depicted in Life During Wartime, Death and the Daleks, and The Grel Escape.  This is a shame, because it stops Bernice from feeling like an actual character.  The novel seems to dodge characterization; the beginning hints that Bernice wants to take a break from the tough times she's been through recently, but avoiding even mentioning the Braxiatel Collection by name, those events have no weight.  As a result, Bernice feels like an unrooted character, existing solely to go through the motions of the protagonist in a pretty generic action-adventure/mystery plot.

It doesn't help that Bernice herself seems uninterested in what's going on.  Early on, a character dies to heighten the tension, but Bernice barely reacts emotionally.  If the novel did something with this-- such as look at how the Fifth Axis occupation has hardened Benny-- then perhaps that could be interesting, but it's just there, and so it falls flat.  If no one in the book cares that this person is dead, then why should I?  There's not a lot of interesting characterization in the book all around, with Beardmore being the only exception. (As a side note, I would like to make an addition to the Bernice Summerfield list of clichés that Simon Guerrier mentions in The Inside Story: the "surprise" revelation that the person who sent Bernice on a seemingly normal archaeological expedition but paid her an absurd amount of money has a hidden malevolent agenda.  It is long since played out.  Also the hidden agenda doesn't make a lot of sense; I'm not convinced that anything illegal was going on before the deaths started happening.)

The Big Hunt is a quick, light read, but therein lies its problem.  At a point where the Bernice Summerfield is finding its legs, dealing with complicated issues in a literary style, it's a return to the kind of storytelling that the series had managed to get away from.

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