2 out of 5
I reread the first few pages several times, trying to figure out on which character the narration intended for us to focus. A few chapters in, I still wasn’t sure, but we spent most of our time with crimehound reporter Adam Jordan by that point, so that’s the assumption, and a couple of hundred pages later that’s held true… even if False Negative never really warms us to Jordan; he’s really just the main character because he’s our POV most of the time.
Halfway through the book, I was also still guessing at what the story was supposed to be. I mean, the beats are there, so I was pretty sure – Jordan stumbles across a set of linked murders that he can’t convince anyone else are actually linked – but in a 250 page book, I’m nearing the last couple chapters and you could still make a case for that not being the story. (Or Jordan not being the main character.)
False Negative is an oddly written book.
I do respect what I think is a bit of a metatextual aspect of this: Jordan’s business, first as a newspaper dude, then writing for real crime pulps, sensationalizes murder, and sex, and so also treats its victims as disposable; its real people as temporary characters. Jordan has principles that want to do otherwise, and it’s a struggle: it gives him notoriety as wielding a particularly literary pen, but the business is still the business; so the distracted, impersonal way Joseph Koenig writes his book may be a way of dually representing that same, shallow mentality to the reader. The narration is also very flashy in this regard, but in a non-descriptive way – like someone explaining the scenes of a movie, but without any context. Jordan, for example, seems to randomly remember that he should be interested in dames, because the book needs sex scenes. He’s a diehard reporter, and then for two or three paragraphs, he’s love hungry, then back.
I respect this approach in concept, but it does not make for a great reading experience, regardless. And what’s unfortunate about that is that there is a good mystery in here, and the characters, when invested in a moment, speak with fun noir panache. Koenig definitely crafts some memorable scenes and settings, and I really like the pairing of the reporter-with-good-intentions to a business that just wants the worst from him. It’s a lot of potential… that a reader spends chapter after chapter waiting for to be fulfilled.