The story begins with a train barreling out of control, its conductor so petrified she can do nothing except for mutter about tunnel creatures. Batman manages to stop the train in time, but is perplexed since there is no sign of fear gas, all the Arkham inmates are accounted for, and one nosy reporter ended up stealing evidence in the form of a paperback book.
The premise seems like a really good set up for a suspense laden thriller as Batman works his way through his rogue's gallery to find out who would bother spraying horror novels with a fear toxin he can't detect by regular means, and if it's the first step in a much more sinister plan. However, this novel fails in almost every execution, dithering around with repetitive exposition and unnecessary original characters not contributing anything to the forwarding of the plot except by means of their own obstruction. It gets so bad that the major plot summation comes as a "so what" over drinks on page 161:
"All right," Maggie said, setting her own cup down on the table. "Here it is. The driver of that runaway train was reading your new novel, Fear Itself
There was a moment's hesitation before Berwald asked, "So?"
That's pretty much how I felt this entire book. It takes 161 pages
to actually get someone to mention this fear toxin conspiracy to the author whose novel, Fear Itself
has been the only one to contain the drug. That is almost half the book. And it's not even Batman or Captain Gordon who confronts him about it! There is no reason for it to take this long, not at the expense of Batman and the police sitting passively by. The mystery itself is something the reader has to patiently wait for the characters to catch up to. We learn nothing beyond what the first incident tells us until the last seventy pages of the book, and even then the reveal is slipshod in terms of how the Scarecrow set up this network before his incarceration in order to escape later, or why it takes Batman so long to put the pieces together.
The worst part about all this filler is that it doesn't even feature the characters that would be the draw of the book. Batman, Gordon and Alfred are all there, but vaguely characterized. It instead prefers to fill up the pages with the specifically created characters who are all annoying, two-dimensional, and often take up the spotlight of the novel at the expense of the responsibility, dignity, or rationality of the characters much better served for it.Maggie Tollyer:
a self-righteous ex-journalist who made her mark writing an expose that blamed a magician for the deaths of kids who tried to recreate his stunts. When the magician committed suicide she blamed herself and gave up journalism to write a blog, but as soon as she realizes there's a horror novel near the victim's terrified body, she steals the copy and begins to stalk the author and using the same "your fault and your responsibility" that killed the previous subject she quit journalism over. For some reason, Batman lets her steal the book and only thinks of returning to get it once he maybe considers it was evidence. Even after that he doesn't short shrift her for her selfish and terrible behavior, going so far as to try and entice her into a dinner date with his alter-ego Bruce Wayne. Later on, when Maggie has crashed a party to try and interrogate the author of the novel, Grey Bernwald, he asks her out on a date, charmed by her harassment. Also, in the most egregious moments of the novel, Batman apparently can't go and find out information about someone in Undertown so he lets her and a plain clothes cop wander there to talk to a pimp and an arms dealer instead. That's right, Batman lets a civilian into an area of Gotham so dangerous even the gangs won't go into it. Because he apparently can't get information out efficiently of the very people he's made it his life's work to fight against.Grey Bernwald:
the horror novelist, of whom the novel describes as being as rich as Bruce Wayne. I don't know how some author who isn't J.K. Rowling can match the head of a multi-billion dollar company but okay then. Also he's handsome, charitable, has a good ol' boy Southern charm, and apparently has the ability to make even Bruce Wayne feel at ease and want to be friends with him for completely personal reasons. His novels are so good that the Scarecrow, once he escapes, demands Grey Bernwald teach him how to write because he is "only the technician" and Bernwald is the artist. That's right, a sociopath with a PhD in fear psychology needs to be told the basic Stephen King "what is fear" lessons and gets positively rapturous for his approval, even though Stephen Crane is generally an elitist psychopath who sees everyone else as tools. Grey also gets a tragic death scene due to the last minute reveal that he did, in fact, help Crane escape (something the novel never points out because BATMAN AND THE GCPD NEVER INTERVIEW HIM
) and dies after Batman leaves him trapped in a cave with electric rails and fear toxin laden robots, assuming he'll be fine.Cutter:
the henchmen with Tourette's syndrome, is a pathetic ex-druggie who can't really think straight and comes from a vague and tortured past. There are passages that seem to suggest his real handicap is the Tourette's and not the brain damage/possible insanity from years of drug abuse and the decision to help a crazy madman. He later switches sides to help Batman, even though Batman promptly leaves him alone with no tracer to track his movements and doesn't bother keeping tabs on him via a stakeout, instead playing sports with Berwald as Bruce Wayne.
This novel is bad. It's bad as a Batman novel, but it's also bad as a regular novel because in order for tension to be continued everyone has to act exceedingly obtuse. The narration itself tries to put in vague asides hinting at further reveals but, at best, they're simply uninteresting character motivation for the original characters, or, at worst, moments where the novel is blatantly ignoring the obvious solution in order to draw things out, such as...oh, having Batman do any of the investigative work. There are no strange new complications that occur in the pages, and when 2/3rds in the person behind the fear toxin is actually revealed as the Scarecrow it feels like the dumbest longest paced "ta da!" moment ever because the Scarecrow is on the cover of the book
. The whole thing tries to be an elaborate slight of hand, but you're never distracted by anything it pulls out. Fear Itself
fails, not only because it doesn't excite, it bores the reader.