Severance Package by Duane Swierczynski Review

At a time when workers feel increasingly insecure about their positions with The Company Severance Package acts as a pretty savage critique of corporate culture.

Duane Swierczynski

With a comic book feel and a throw the physics out the window off handed approach it takes the dog-eat-dog, crabs-in-a-barrel mentality of co-workers; the it’s hard to kiss ass with a knife in your back feeling of maneuvering the office mine field; the my-nuts-just- shriveled-into-my-stomach feeling that happens when you boss calls an unexpected meeting the tensions and concerns of the modern cube rat errrr I mean office employee are perfectly captured. Cranked up to 11 and distorted like a Ralph Steadman picture sure, but captured perfectly nonetheless.

With Duane’s newspaper background in mind is that a whiff of newsroom buy-outs tickling my nose as I flip through the pages, why yes, I do believe it is.

Did you ever see one of those videos where a closed off room was filled with set mousetraps. Then a ping-pong ball is tossed into the room and with an insane flurry of chaos all the traps are sprung. Or how about the aftermath of the infamous Mexican standoff at the end of Reservoir Dogs when the dust settled and everybody was dead and you were left scratching your head wondering ‘what the fuck just happened’? Yeah well those two images don’t do justice to the insane plot in Severance Package. It has so many twists and switch backs that things happen before you can process them. But the time you think you’ve caught up Severance Package yanks the football away and just laughs at you while it steals your ball.

One of the main characteristics that serve the twisty plot so well is the characters. Specifically their almost soap opera like disposability and ability to defy death more then Stefano Dimera (Yeah, I just dropped a Days of Our Lives reference what of it). Even after you have adjusted you quickly realize that you are reading by a different set of rules.

Severance Package is a little like the original Die Hard movie in that the majority of the action is confined to a small space. This constraint allows for great inventiveness in the hands of the right imagination. Swierczynski is that imagination. I can’t shake this feeling that he has a notebook next to his bed and wakes up every hour or so with new batches of ways to kill people. (And don’t ever mention that it’s a Rainbow Brite notebook. Those that laugh have a habit of disappearing. Seriously.) The claustrophobia of the setting adds to the tension and compliments the story nicely.

All of which leads up to a chilling creature feature ending that should come with a built in Wilhelm Scream.

Now, ramblings aside, lets roll up our sleeves, get down and dirty and go play for a bit in the muddy end of the field.

Back in June, Bill Crider wrote a favorable blog review of Severance Package. In the comments Lee Goldberg countered the positive review, and in doing so made the following statement:

“It’s obvious that that Duane is a wonderfully imaginative, highly skilled writer…but, in my opinion, he’s skating on flash alone…he’s taking the easy way and not using his considerable talent to its full potential. He could be writing great books…noir classics…but instead he’s going for gimmicks, in-jokes, and fights. It’s as if in every scene he’s trying to impress his friends, as if he’s saying “hey, look at this guys, isn’t this cool?” instead of trying to create characters and tell a compelling story. It made reading the book frustrating…I kept asking myself why is he wasting himself on this when he could be writing something with substance and staying power? “

And this:

“But when I read Duane, what I see is enormous talent being wasted. It’s not the easy readability of his books that bothers me — I love that about about his writing — it’s the superficial, unsatisfying plotting and thinly drawn characters.”

Which prompted a flurry of comment trail activity in defense of Duane. But I think it’s an interesting observation, if not a totally valid one, that deserves to be looked at a little more closely.

Typically the opinion of a writer’s potential would be in the eye of the beholder, a matter of opinion and perception. With other writers a reader would be left to speculate about a writers potential but Duane’s writing career, when looked at in it’s totality, is an interesting one because it provides clear cut examples of the width and breadth of his capabilities, a lot of his potential (and ability) has already been exposed and laid bare. Between his non-fiction books, crime novels, comics, weekly editorial columns and (perhaps most importantly) his recent spate of DIY mystery books; Duane, in a flurry of activity, has shown us the various facets and traits of his writing personality.

So, if his crime novels sometimes, to some people, feel single faceted and narrow in scope it’s because in some ways they are since they represent just a portion of what he can do because his different writings are to a large extent compartmentalized. But as long as the crime novels are exiting, energetic, manic and more then a little insane that’s good enough for me.