In The Summer House, by James Patterson and Brendan DuBois, a team of Army Rangers is accused of brutally executing an entire family, including a two-year-old girl, dwelling in a sleepy Georgia county.
A special Army investigation unit sent to liaison with local law enforcement and make sure the Rangers aren’t being railroaded uncovers evidence that, despite the seemingly airtight case against the Rangers, something deeper and darker is afoot. The Army team members dig for more even as the investigation threatens to blow up in their faces, and careers and even life itself are on the line for both the accused and the investigators.
It’s a real stem-winder and deservedly sat on the bestseller charts for weeks, rising as high as number three on the New York Times list. This is DuBois’s third collaboration in novel form with powerhouse author James Patterson. The others are last year’s The First Lady and The Cornwalls Are Gone, another national bestseller.
The Army investigating team in The Summer House is a diverse bunch, including a couple of reservist cops, an Army lawyer, and a psychiatrist—all led by former Los Angeles Police Department detective Major Jeremiah Cook, previously a reservist, now a career Army investigator, who hobbles around like Dr. House on a withered leg, always in some degree of pain, suffering from a wound received during an attack while he was deployed in Afghanistan.
The various team members are well-drawn and motivated. There’s some contention in the team, but this is a group of professionals working to deadline on a case that will make or break their careers—a case that also means life or death for the accused who, perversely, are staying clammed up about their guilt or innocence.
It’s a genuine mystery with puzzle pieces to put together, and a thriller with a ticking clock for all involved. The cicada-buzzing humidity of the Georgia setting comes through. The inner workings of Army culture and Southern judicial proceedings are well-researched and feel accurate, especially the military matters.
There is a bit of annoying Southern stereotyping, but it is fairly mild as such things go, and the staunchly Yankee DuBois, a lifelong native of New Hampshire, likely couldn’t help himself. Overall, “The Summer House” is practically the Platonic form of the tense, fraught mystery larded with a dollop of gritty realism.
The collaborative novel has a decades-long history in American fiction. Seeing two author names on a book can mean a lot of things. Sometimes the collaboration is total, as with, say, the science fiction novels of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle in the 1980s, or today with the thrillers of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child.
There are many permutations. Ellery Queen was two guys using one name. There are sharecropped collaborations, where one of the authors, usually more established, provides the milieu and the other the dirty work. When it’s a sharecrop, but one of the authors is dead, it’s usually called a franchise collaboration. The “new” Tom Clancy books fall into this category.
There are gimmick collaborations with celebrities. There are posthumous collaborations in which the author left an unfinished manuscript, such as the recent “Mamelukes” by Jerry Pournelle, which was finished by his son Phillip and sci-fi author David Weber. (I was an editor on that book.) There are secret collaborations where author A got a contract but couldn’t fulfill it, and author B finishes it. I may have heard of a few of those.
Sometimes the collaboration is more complex and perhaps indicative of forces at play in the larger publishing world. I think The Summer House qualifies in this regard. While DuBois is hardly the household name that Patterson is, he is no slouch in the mystery field. He’s the winner of three Shamus writing awards, and the author of the successful Lewis Cole mystery series. While coauthoring a book with Patterson means reaching a much wider audience for DuBois, it also may betoken a permanent turn that American fiction is taking toward the modern version of a craftman’s guild system.
Book publishing has become a peculiar business in the last generation or so. The major publishing houses are owned by large corporations specializing in communications, of which book publishing is a small portion. German behemoth Bertelsman owns Penguin Random House. Another German company, holding group Holtzbrink, owns MacMillan. Hachette—Patterson’s publisher via its Little, Brown imprint—is French, and headquartered in Paris. UK and U.S. conglomerate News Corp owns HarperCollins. Of the big five, only Simon and Schuster is owned by a primarily American company, ViacomCBS (which doesn’t want it, and currently has S&S on the sales block).
The American publishing houses are junior components of these corporations. They started out vibrant, old-school liberal for various reasons, but still profit-oriented. Today they do not really exist to make money, but to provide cultural prestige and political cover for their parent companies—primarily protection insurance from Democrats and European socialists, who are an ever-present risk to legislate communications restrictions.
With Barnes and Noble staggering on the verge of dissolution, indie booksellers an admirable, but negligible, force, and Amazon ascendant for the foreseeable future, there is no brief for books on the consumer side, either. Self-publishing is mostly a joke, and when it is not, is almost entirely an Amazon auxiliary these days. If you are self-publishing, you are working for Amazon.
Yet there is a place in American publishing where sales, quality, and storytelling still matter, and that is in the American genres. The genres—mysteries, thrillers, science fiction, fantasy, and the like (also a very few nonfiction categories)—exist, sometimes thrive, within the cracks of American publishing.
They have, however, been forced to adapt to a system over which they have little control. One of these adaptations is the mining of celebrity, however slight, via the franchise author. In the case of, say, the Tom Clancy franchise, any outlines Clancy left behind are long gone. The Clancy estate licensed the setting, and the coauthor wrote the entire book.
Patterson, on the other hand, is still very much alive and a potent force in mystery. While his “factory” of coauthors is legendary, almost to a man, the authors who thrive in the Patterson system do not seem to be hacks, their creativity beaten down.
This may be due to Patterson’s background. Before he became a best-selling author, Patterson was an executive at advertising agency J. Walter Thompson, where he likely honed his collaborative skills working with artists and copywriters. These days, Patterson is capable of getting someone like Brendan DuBois to write with him.
While DuBois’s novels are solid (and fairly New-Hampshire-libertarian in underlying philosophy), DuBois is one of the best writers of short stories working today. Of course, this is a form that doesn’t pay well, so it’s no surprise DuBois concentrates on books. DuBois is also, perhaps not incidentally, a one-day “Jeopardy!” champion.
The author who becomes a brand is nothing new in American fiction, but the unremitting, decade-long run of coauthored bestsellers from Patterson is something unique. The survival and rebirth of the American novel does not, I am bold to say, depend upon the annual disgorgement of navel-gazers, LARPing revolutionaries, and mediocrities from the nation’s writing MFA programs, most destined for readerships in the low thousands. It may, however, depend on authors like Brendan DuBois and craft-guild systems like James Patterson’s, which have together developed a large and discerning readership.
DuBois is a science fiction author as well as a mystery writer, and this reviewer happens to be DuBois’s editor and friend. So asked him about his collaboration with Patterson and what, if anything, the Patterson phenomenon portends.
How did your collaboration with James Patterson come about?
In 2016, James Patterson announced that he was starting a new publishing line, called BookShots, which were to be co-authored tales no longer than 40,000 words. Luckily for me, a friend in publishing recommended me to Jim, and after a brief tryout, I was signed up and did our first BookShot, The End.
Following that one, we did two more, and then Jim asked me to work with him on an outline for the fourth. When the outline was finished, Jim called me up—for the first time ever, since my only earlier correspondence was with him via an editor—and basically said, “This outline could be used for a full-length novel. Would you be interested in doing a novel with me? I’ll give you a few days to think about it.”
I said, “No, I’m good, I’d be thrilled to work on a novel with you.” That became our first work, The First Lady, and later, we worked on another novel called The Cornwalls Are Gone. Both came out last year.
Tell me about the bones of the collaboration process for “The Summer House.” How did it work? What were the stages of the book’s development?
After The Cornwalls Are Gone, was completed in manuscript form, Jim called me up one day and basically said, “Good job on that one. Got a pen and paper handy?” Then for the next half hour or so, he gave me the initial outline for The Summer House.
We spent a couple months working together on the outline, and when he was satisfied, the writing started. The real work continued, with lots of intense collaboration, pages being sent back and forth, lots of edits, and phone calls.
Other than the obvious career advantages, why did you agree to do this artistically?
It was a tremendous opportunity to work with one of the most popular authors on the planet. Who would turn that down? It’s been an incredible learning experience, right from the start.
When we started on The First Lady, after we had worked on the initial pages, he said, “I think chapters one through three can be condensed into one chapter.” After an initial bout of grumpiness, I looked at the words with a fresh eye and realized he was right.
That continues even to this day. Some months ago, I revised an earlier standalone thriller of mine and realized it was too fat and sloppy, and with the knowledge gained from working with Jim, I was able to cut 20,000 words from it.
Do you think that James Patterson and his brand are a one-off publishing anomaly? Is he a harbinger of changes in writing genre fiction?
In some ways, I do think it was a harbinger of changes in writing genre fiction. Before his passing, Clive Cussler collaborated with several authors, and others who’ve done the same include Janet Evanovich and Stuart Woods. But it all depends on the author and the market.
Are you doing it again? What are you working on?
I am in fact doing it again, but until it’s officially announced and released, that’s all I can say.