Book Review: Cast of Shadows

Cast of Shadows

By Kevin Guilfoile

Published March 2005

Knopf Publishers

336 pp.

ISBN 1-400-04308-5

Date reviewed: April 6, 2005

Originally appeared in: The Daily Cardinal

In his debut novel “Cast of Shadows,” Kevin Guifoile has passed the test for detail but failed the test for consistency. Embarking on a surreal story of cloning and murder, he comes close to brilliance several times but forces too many scenarios on his audience, distracting them from what is important.

Davis Moore is a Chicago fertility doctor who embarks on a twisted experiment when his daughter is brutally raped and murdered. Consumed by grief he takes the killer’s DNA and impregnates one of his patients to create Justin Finn, a young boy who will one day give him the clue he desperately needs.

True to form Justin becomes a teenager with staggering intelligence, smart enough to track down his predecessor – but also showing obsessions with fire and animals that betray a darker undercurrent. As he grows up he leads Moore down roads he did not anticipate, forcing his “father” to ask questions and reach conclusions he never wanted.

The plot sounds like something out of the latest Robert DeNiro movie – complete with the obligatory creepy child – but unlike these films “Cast of Shadows” has a surprising level of detail. Guilfoile has clearly done his homework on medical research, making Moore’s cloning techniques and supporting speeches sound real. Justin displays all the right behaviors for a killer-in-training, studying behaviors and murder scenes like a forensics expert.

Unfortunately, this level of detail is not balanced with the plot, as Guilfoile goes off on so many different directions you have a hard time figuring out which ideas are more important. He seems so caught up in making a complex thriller that he brings in every angle – conflicted cops and detectives, small-town athletes and kinky sex – trying to make every paragraph an adventure.

The large amount plots and characters feels more like excess than adventure however, making the story feel unbalanced. A terrorist known as Mickey the Gerund is an excellent villain – pious and professional – but only makes guest appearances every ten or so chapters. Conversely, a virtual reality game known as Shadow World dominates the second half of the story, making fake lives more important than finding a real killer.

The confusion of the main plots is only made worse by the fact that every character in the book has their own subplot of misery. Moore becomes bitter and quiet as time goes on, and his pill-popping wife has more mental problems than the killers. A private eye called Sally Barwick has borderline pedophiliac dreams about Justin, and Justin’s mother Martha drives away everyone around her.

The book manages to command the reader’s attention but it sometimes feels like an obligation – you have invested so much time and effort into it that you need to know how it closes. In this case Guilfoile has certainly made the bad horror movie mistake, creating an ending that tries to be a dramatic turn but makes nine-tenths of the book – subplots and all – seem like a waste.

Past the halfway point in the book Moore reads a mystery novel he calls “terrible and exciting”, a phrase that comes close to summarizing “Cast of Shadows”. Its descriptions and scenarios are done well but done too much, leaving anyone who reads it confused about their final reaction.

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