You should know up front that this latest novel from Joe Haldeman, author of such acclaimed science-fiction works as THE FOREVER WAR, THE ACCIDENTAL TIME MACHINE is more mainstream thriller than sci-fi. That, however, is not why WORK DONE FOR HIRE is so frustrating and disappointing.
Jack Daley served as a sniper in the Iraqi war until he was wounded in combat and honorably discharged. Now, nine years later, Jack is a writer struggling to get published and still suffers from occasional nightmares of his war experiences.
Then Jack is given the opportunity to write a novel based on a script outline developed by a popular Hollywood director. The story is set in the near future and focuses upon a serial killer who may or may not be an extraterrestrial. Jack’s assignment promises a hefty paycheck along with the chance to finally break into publishing. He accepts, knowing it finally will allow him and his longtime girlfriend, Kit Majors, to lead the life they have dreamed about.
As Jack immerses himself in the novel, a package arrives at his door early one morning. Inside are a sniper rifle, $100,000 in cash and a note. The note tells Jack that the money is partial payment for him to kill a “bad man.” Jack quickly discovers that those who sent the package have him under constant surveillance — and if he refuses to take the job, they will fatally harm Kit.
WORK begins with alternating chapters of Jack’s novel adaptation and his first-person account of researching and writing it. Then, after nearly 100 pages, Haldeman abruptly introduces the assignation twist, which sends the remainder of the book in a completely different direction. You can’t help but feel that Haldeman realized he wrote himself into a dead end after nearly halfway, and suddenly decided to take a different approach.
Unfortunately, from that moment on, it is chapter after chapter of Jack and Kit on the run. They spend every waking hour figuring out how to survive, with an occasional visit to a Homeland Security Office where Jack shares his story to a seemingly uninterested agent. Then it’s more meandering across the country as Jack tries to figure out why he was chosen and who the target of the hit might be.
Haldeman seems to have no idea what to do with his characters or the thin, revised plot. There’s plenty of conversation and speculation between Jack and Kit, along with several attempts at humor and suspense, yet nothing adds up or amounts to anything significant. As a result, we begin to lose interest in the two main characters as they bounce from one end of the country to another. By the time Haldeman finally reveals the resolution, in the final pages, it seems contrived and lazy, producing more groans than gasps.
What makes all this even sadder is that it comes from an author who is by no means a neophyte. With almost a dozen novels and numerous awards to his name, Haldeman has proven that he knows how to create fascinating story ideas and sympathetic, involving characters. But you wouldn’t know it based upon WORK DONE FOR HIRE.
You can’t fault him for wanting to try his hand at a different genre. But somewhere in the transition from science fiction to suspense thriller, Haldeman forgot how to move his story and characters from an initial conflict to a satisfying resolution.
Readers who have enjoyed any of his previous works are urged to skip this latest title. Now that it’s out of his system, let’s hope that he quickly reclaims those skills and abilities that made him such an inventive and impressive contemporary author, regardless of genre. —Alan Cranis