Review: W.E.B. Griffin – the ‘Badge of Honor’ series

Books 1-11, (Men in Blue, Special Operations, The Victim, The Witness, The Assassin, The Murderers, The Investigators, Final Justice, The Traffickers, The Vigilantes, The Last Witness)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I liked it.

I have to say that as an introductory rather than at the conclusion where it belongs given everything I am about to say is going to give very much the opposite impression so, remember… I liked it.

To put this into context, out here in China, reading matter is sparse. We expats grab what we can get from passers-through, one another, the very occasional book in English that turns up in a second-hand shop.

What we get isn’t always – indeed, is very rarely – what we would choose to read. Well, me, anyway.

One friend, getting rid of a pile of books, gave me the first eleven of this series, (all of them at the time of writing), and I – perhaps ill-advisedly – quaffed the lot one after the other.

I managed to get through it all, even enjoyed doing it but that, as I say, is odd, given there’s practically nothing good I have to say about any of it.

What’s wrong with these books? Oh, my darlings, let me count the ways.

  • Our heroes are removed from the nitty-gritty feet-on-the-ground which holds so much potential in this sort of novel by virtue of being very rich, well-connected, or both. Why? The sense of our little crew here floating above the rest of the police force by virtue of privilege puts way too much emphasis on such dull minutiae as whether what they’re drinking down the cops’ bar has stood in the cask for twelve years or for eighteen, not to mention the luxury cars they drive around. Even the journalist is one of the gang and a Pulitzer prize winner earning at a level most journalists couldn’t dream of attaining. As often as not they get around in friends’ private jets, for heaven’s sake. When you’ve got the new recruit, our hero, calling the Commissioner ‘Uncle Denny’ on the shop floor, then maybe things are just going to be way too easy behind the scenes.
  • Coincidence abounds. In the first book in particular, everyone is someone’s godfather, uncle, brother, sister, mentor, stepson, uncle, neighbour, lover. In a city, Philadelphia, of 1.55 million, what are the odds?
  • Griffin has done his research well. Too well. Every tiny little detail he has found out about police procedure appears. And then appears again. And then again. And again. It’s not skilfully inserted into the story, it’s ladled on as a topping, more often than not for no reason whatsoever.
  • Also on the repetition front we have the interminable recaps. Instead of a sentence or two, we get page after page in book after book and often, it seems, as copies-and-pastes from one work to the next. How many times do we have to be told the details of where Payne lives, the fact that daddy owns the building, (too frequently presented as a ‘surprise surprise’ as Griffin, for some reason, continues to amaze us with all the privilege floating around in the background), and even that he has two parking spaces including one for his Porsche?
  • Given the above, what with details of police procedures – again repeated from book to book – and recaps that would be too long even if they weren’t actually pointless, I reached the end of a few books feeling I’d read a short story with plenty of padding, the padding – at times – presented with more seeming enthusiasm than the plot itself.
  • Go to hell! Sorry about that, but you take my point. Yes, sure, people say that to friends in jest, but these guys are very busy telling each other to go to hell, fuck off and all the rest of it and every time, dear Mr. Griffin has to underline the fact they do so in jest… until he stops. Then it’s worse, because you keep forgetting and wait for the fists to fly with the gratuitous pointlessness of it all. Only they don’t. Everyone smiles politely at each other and is so bosom-chummy and all the calling each other out crap to add ‘gritty realism’ is just unreal and pointless.
  • Following the above, there’s precious little internal conflict. Early on one character hangs around who doesn’t get on with the main protagonist. We know this because we’re told so, but it never really seems to manifest itself. As with all the ‘Go to hell’ stuff above, it’s a token gesture towards grit.
  • Matt Payne, (our main protagonist), falls in love at the drop of a hat. This, in part, is because over the decades that the stories span, he remains in his early-to-mid 20s and keeps about him his pleasing naivety. Some people really have it easy. However, conveniently, though his love is deep and sincere – as witness the fact that he’s always thinking about getting married – the beloved is lost, (usually shot by a bad guy), thus leaving him (young) free (and single) to fall in love all over again.
  • You would anticipate, following on from the above, that the deaths of these beloveds is all a plot device to make us, the reader, and indeed our protagonist, see his fight against crime as something deeply personal, but that – albeit it would be a tawdry device – is, strangely, never used. They just seem to get killed as an afterthought. It doesn’t seem to impact upon the plot at all. They tend to get killed in ‘final shoot-outs’ rather than the initial ones.
  • So to the bad guys. We don’t get much inside their heads. They come across as ciphers most of the time. Just as our police are clean, these guys are dirty; and just as knowing our guys are clean is about all you need to know, so the bad guys being dirty is about all you need to know.
  • The writing, at times, is poor to the point of atrocious. For some reason, in book after book, Griffin uses ‘ergo sum’ where he should be using ‘ergo’ when ‘therefore’ would have been better in any case from the get go given the tone of the writing. How on earth, in book after book, over several editions through decades, was this never picked up on at the editing stage? Then there’s his love of giving thoughts letters. This is a problem because (a), he does it so frequently and (b), more often than not it’s in dialogue. At times they even make it up to (c), but even then there are better sentence structures, particularly when characters are speaking. If speaking that way myself I would have to be being (a), utterly pedantic, and (b), totally self-absorbed, ergo sum I would never do it. Heaven knows why Griffin’s characters do.

I noticed a change of tone in the final three books, (9, 10 and 11), in which some of these problems were diminished. In particular, we had a more rounded view of the bad guys, though still not that full. Unfortunately, at that point a new malaise was also introduced:

  • American right-wing nonsense. I find this sort of thing tiresome enough in internet chat rooms, but in a novel? Mr. Griffin, get past the swamping of the net by the NRA and look up the reality of this oft- related tale of the Brits banning guns and the crime rate going up, would you? Alternatively, spend 17 seconds talking to any Brit.

Deep breath now and… remember? I said at the beginning… I liked these books. It’s just difficult putting my finger on why. I know that I quite looked forward to picking up where I’d left off the night before of an evening. I know, once or twice, I read way beyond my bedtime. It wasn’t the plotting, wasn’t the writing, and certainly wasn’t any measure of empathy with the characters. All I can think it was, in the end, was Griffin’s boyish enthusiasm for his subject matter and, though they didn’t do much for me, his love of his heroes.

When it comes to reading more of Griffin’s work, here’s the thing. I am a completist, almost obsessively so. As and when and if book 12 in the series comes out, I ought to be hunting it down but, frankly, I won’t. I’m really not interested enough in our heroes to give much of a toss what they do next. I’d read it for sure. I’d read any other book of Griffin quite contentedly in the future, (though after eleven on the trot, perhaps not in the near future).

Ergo sum, I must have enjoyed them. However, (a), I’m lost as to why and (b), though my enjoyment surpassed my reservations, my reservations remain real.

Good enough, then… but, with a bit more care, these books could have been so much better.

2 thoughts on “Review: W.E.B. Griffin – the ‘Badge of Honor’ series

  1. I agree with this review entirely, Also the last books 8 thru 11were probably written solely by the co author Butterworth to milk the popular series and suffered for it. The first 7 books written by Griffin were set in the early to late 70’s the rest jumped 20 plus years in time with out changing the characters ages and played fast and loose with the established characters backgrounds.

    Griffin’s Corps and Men at war sires whiles suffering some of the same problems are I think better written at least in the earlier books.was

    • Thanks, Chuck. This isn’t usually my genre. The fact I hit the nail on the head is gratifying given I wasn’t too sure what I was talking about(!) That’s the problem with working from a random reading list.

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