Before I Wake

Mr. Reindeer

White Lodge
Apr 13, 2022
819
1,854
This one comes with a bit of a mysterious backstory, as I haven’t been able to find any explanation as to why Frost published it under the nom de plume Eric Bowman. Was it for contractual reasons? Or did Frost (or his management team) feel that attaching his name to a relatively straightforward James Patterson/Jeffrey Deaver-style crime thriller this early in his literary career wasn’t the brand they wanted to establish? (Incidentally, an endorsement from Deaver, hot off the success of The Bone Collector, appears on the first page of my paperback edition.) I assume the last name “Bowman” is a reference to Keir Dullea’s character in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Frost has mentioned as a major formative influence.

This book aside, 1997 was in the middle of a relatively fallow period in Frost’s literary career; he didn’t publish any books in his own name between 1995’s The Six Messiahs and 2002’s The Greatest Game Ever Played. He spent much of that period focusing on TV due to his deal with Spelling, resulting in the short-lived Buddy Faro and All Souls, as well as the never-aired Repair Shop and Forbidden Island.

I also wonder when exactly the public became aware that the book was in fact written by Frost. The earliest references I can find are from various publicity pieces surrounding his 2007 book The Match, where Before I Wake is casually listed among his prior works.

The title comes from the well-known (and rather morbid) children’s bedtime prayer (“If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take”). It’s mentioned at one point in backstory that a character used to say this prayer as a child while praying over her older sister, although the actual words “before I wake” never appear in the book’s text, and precisely what the phrase means in the context of the plot is rather ambiguous (it’s very much reminiscent of Patterson titles like Cradle and All and Along Came a Spider, though).

One interesting point is that this is probably the closest Frost has ever come to revisiting his Hill Street Blues days, writing a straight police procedural with no supernatural elements. The gimmick, which my paperback copy proudly advertises all over the covers (“The acclaimed novel of suspense that begins where most thrillers end…”), is that the killer identifies himself to the reader on the first page (more or less), and so the reader is left waiting for the detective protagonist to catch up to our knowledge, as the killer plays a deadly cat-and-mouse game. This probably isn’t quite as innovative as the publisher wants us to think it is (doesn’t every episode of Columbo do the same thing?), but it does make for a very fun, breezy read, the kind of good old-fashioned page-turner you could bang out during a weekend beach trip or a long transcontinental airline flight. The villain, Terence Peregrine Keyes, is a famous British author and former convict (he served twelve years for drunkenly killing a woman—allegedly by accident—in a backstory very similar to the Buckskin Frank character in The Six Messiahs). Keyes is very much in the Windom Earle mode of villainy, delivering egocentric monologues, sneaking around in various disguises, laying elaborate traps for our heroes and escape hatches for himself as he commits the various murders and eludes capture. He views his crimes as art and intends to send a message…actually, as eventually revealed, he really has two motives. One is personal and one is more in the nature of broad social (anti-American) commentary. Quite frankly, neither reason is all that compelling or original, but Keyes overall is still fun as a character.

The book is pretty light on the by-now-expected Frostian philosophical indulgences. Other than the aforementioned anti-American stuff (Keyes makes some certainly valid, but also very obvious, points about American consumerism and values), Keyes seems fixated on the Hobbesian idea of “every man against every man” outside the bonds of society, and one character is obsessed with New Age guru Deepak Chopra (a former Transcendental Meditation devotee!). But the main point of pontification is the question of the nature and origins of evil, in a psychological sense. This is familiar territory for Frost, reminiscent of some of the debates surrounding Leland on Twin Peaks, as well as Alexander Sparks in the Arthur Conan Doyle books. The two main characters who have this discussion, NYPD Detective Jimmy Montone (our hero) and psychologist Erin Kelly, come down pretty firmly on the idea that people who commit evil acts—although this opinion is “far less appealing to popular liberal sentiment”—ultimately do so by choice, and blaming their upbringing is just an excuse. However, these same characters also express their belief, at various points, that people are simply born with these violent tendencies, and short of getting psychological help (which many don’t have access to), they are destined to act on their impulses…so there’s some weird mixed messaging in the book which seems to be endemic to Frost’s approach to this topic in Peaks and The Six Messiahs as well: is evil/violence a choice, or is it a predisposition that the perpetrator is helpless to resist? Frost seems rather ambivalent on the matter.

One of the things I liked best about the book was its specificity. I won’t say “realism,” because it’s obviously a fairly over the top thriller. But the book regularly mentions real NY restaurants and hotels and geography (and later the same is true of Miami as well), lending an immediacy and immersion to even the crazier stuff that happens (when the detective and the villain are racing toward/away from locations, for instance, street names are regularly dropped, giving a real sense of geographical suspense). And having worked with NYPD for several years (as an assistant district attorney), I can vouch that all the departmental terminology and procedure is very accurate, which was refreshing. Frost, unsurprisingly, presumably conducted a fair degree of research in preparing the book.

The main character, homicide Detective Jimmy Montone, is perfectly likable and is pleasant enough to spend time with over the course of the story, but there’s nothing particularly memorable or interesting about him to differentiate him from the hundreds of other cops who populate books in this genre. A kid from Queens who escaped an impoverished upbringing thanks to a college hockey scholarship, his primary backstory is that he caught a high-profile serial rapist and murderer several years earlier, and that propelled him into a certain degree of nation-wide fame. The events of that investigation have left him a bit scarred (a friend and former girlfriend of his, an undercover officer posing as a hooker, was the last victim of the killer), and he has since retreated inward, essentially giving up on having any kind of social or personal life (he spends his rare free time golfing and watching movies alone).

The story begins with a news anchor taking a header through his thirty-fifth story apartment window onto the pavement, and leaving a videotaped “confession” behind about how he’s guilty of promoting a false vision of the world (essentially, the opening of Watchmen meets Network). The early going oddly introduces some plot threads and characters that go nowhere, such as the news anchor’s personal assistant whom he had coerced into making a sex tape (oddly enough, she’s originally from Miami, where a good chunk of the last third of the book takes place, but this seems to be entirely coincidental, as she is never mentioned again after the second chapter). From there, the plot continually ramps up and escalates, keeping the book from ever seeming stagnant, as the cruel nature of Keyes’s crimes becomes increasingly apparent.

The murder and degradation of women is a major theme in the book: the serial killer Montone is famous for arresting targeted prostitutes; Keyes is also suspected by a Scotland Yard Inspector of a series of sexual murders against prostitutes, although it’s left ambiguous whether he was actually responsible; Keyes repeatedly drugs and brutalizes his girlfriend, a prominent publicist he is using due to her access to high-profile celebrities he wishes to target (her low self-esteem has her so desperate for a boyfriend that she willfully ignores his mistreatment). Montone’s love interest, Holly Mews, is definitely the product of a male imagination: a supermodel who happens to be completely humble and down to earth, never wearing makeup, and of course having no luck with men before meeting Montone (it’s so tough for those supermodels to meet men!).

As far as Peaks links go, we get a law enforcement analyst named Tammy (Detective Tammy DePietro from Technical Assistance Response Unit); and Tammy runs a videotape back and forth for Montone, frame by frame, until he spots a clue, reminiscent of the Twin Peaks Pilot when Cooper sees the reflection in Laura’s eye. There’s also a reference to a “Big Ed”—Montone’s uncle Ed Sanicola, who owns a Big and Tall shop in Rochester—as well as a ring that disappears and reappears at various murder scenes.

Movies referenced include: Touch of Evil (Montone is seeing a “revival” at the Angelika Film Center when he gets beeped for the news anchor’s death…interestingly, the 1998 restoration—currently regarded as the best possible definitive version given the materials that are available—was just a year and a half off from release when this book was published, although it’s unclear if Frost was aware of that at the time); Papillon; and The Three Faces of Eve.

One final thought that seems as appropriate to include here as anywhere: in the dedication to Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier, Frost refers to Dossier as “the seventeenth and final book” he created with the support of the late Ed Victor. Assuming that this number includes all of the twelve books published under his own name, this Eric Bowman book, and the three Peaks novels by other authors (Secret Diary, My Life, My Tapes, and Access Guide), this adds up to sixteen, leaving one book unaccounted for. Was he potentially including the Diane… audiotape (which was released by Simon & Schuster)? Or is there some unclaimed Frost book published under another name still lurking out there?
 
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Mr. Reindeer

White Lodge
Apr 13, 2022
819
1,854
Oh, one other little bit of trivia I forgot to mention: the book is copyrighted to “Mashie Niblick, Inc.” As I now know, thanks to The Greatest Game Ever Played, the “mashie-niblick” is an old-timey golf club, the rough equivalent of a modern-day seven-iron. Per California business records, Mashie Niblick Inc. was a Los Angeles corporation providing entertainment services, with Mark Frost as CEO, filed on July 26, 1982.
 
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