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Frozen Solid 

Debut novel slips on its slow pace

What's the scariest thing imaginable? For most of us, it's a serial killer. Hannibal Lecter, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ed Gein . . . The horrific monster of a hundred movies, a thousand thriller novels, and too many news stories.The Snowman's Children is not a novel about a serial killer. It is, however, a novel about three children who grow up in the shadow of a serial killer, children who spend a powerfully formative part of their childhood living in the same neighborhood as the victims of the "Snowman," a child-murderer who strikes only when snow is deep on the ground. It's a rich and spooky idea, one ill-used in this claustrophobic, slow-moving first novel that's rotten with errors common to the beginning novelist.

Hirshberg is a current Los Angeles resident who formerly taught at Providence Day School in Charlotte and contributed occasionally to CL. His Snowman is a fictional character, but one no doubt inspired by a real-life murderer -- one that clearly made an impression on the author. Hirshberg was born in Detroit and raised in San Diego; perhaps he was still in Detroit during the brief 1976 activity of "the Babysitter," a Motor City child killer who preyed on Detroit's affluent suburbs. The Babysitter snatched children and teenagers, leaving their unmarked bodies -- recently bathed -- beside a pile of their own freshly laundered clothes. Hirshberg would have been 11 at the time of the Babysitter killings -- the same age as the three main characters of his novel.

Mattie Rhodes, the protagonist of Snowman's Children, shares a friendship with two other kids, both of whom are social outsiders like Mattie himself. Spencer is a friendly, whip-smart black kid who's being bused to Mattie's lily-white suburban school; Theresa is a fey, quiet child of preternatural intelligence with a distant father, dead mother, and a well-drawn, creepy early maturity and permanently inward-turned mien. Gregarious Spencer is all about the world outside; freaky Theresa clearly has built a secret world within the confines of her skull. Mattie is a cipher whose motivations seem no clearer to himself than to the reader.

Early on in the novel, we learn that Something Bad Happened in protagonist Mattie's childhood -- something so damning, shameful, and horrible that it sent his entire family packing to Kentucky and eventually stunted Mattie's adult personality into a Bonsai of self-doubt, guilt and interior colorlessness. The novel begins as Mattie, now 29, returns home to Detroit to face his demons. Given that setup, readers know we'll spend most of the book's length waiting to find out what it was that happened all those years ago during one winter when the snow lay thick on the ground.

Baiting and waiting is not an artful conceit. To string readers along for chapter after chapter chasing that one tantalizing secret dangling just out of reach, we must have more than just simple curiosity about what happened. The author assumes the burden of making us ache to know the hidden truth; he must ruthlessly stoke and stroke our curiosity until we're consumed by a desire to know. It's a tough trick to do well, and Hirshberg doesn't pull it off. Only the dull imperative of raw, basic human curiosity keeps us wanting to know What Mattie Did, not any emotional investment in the characters or in the unfolding drama of their lives.

For a story about one of the scariest things imaginable -- the serial killer -- the book doesn't pack much of a wallop of fear or suspense. Though Snowman's Children isn't meant to be a horror novel, it fails even at being a slow-moving psychological work suffused with quiet dread. It is, instead, a glacially paced novel suffused with quietly dreadful storytelling. Hirshberg makes the common first-time novelist error of failing to impart any semblance of life into characters. When Spencer shakes with fear at seeing Mattie again, the scene has all the tension and verisimilitude of a badly acted high school play: the author tells us someone is afraid, but he doesn't show us a human being experiencing fear.

The characters of The Snowman's Children are trapped in a stiff ballet of bad storytelling, puppets moving per the author's intent rather than like real people motivated by a believable inner life. They aren't people you could meet on the street; they're dolls inside the dollhouse of Hirshberg's head.

If the writing fails for much of the novel, it succeeds hugely (if briefly) in a dread-packed section near the novel's final chapters. Here, as we begin to uncover Mattie's secret at last, the novel flares with a quiet brilliance as it depicts the baroque strangeness of flawed child-logic and the horrific consequences that can attach themselves to innocent acts. For an all-too-short stretch, the novel captures with a painful accuracy the deep dread only children feel, the helpless dread felt only by those trapped in the stunted bubble of childhood, the dread felt by a young person who doesn't understand adult consequence yet feels its weight beginning to crush his soul. There are other flares of talent: the author captures well the hidden lives of children -- their secret games, their strange private world. But brief flashes of ability in a slough of inadequacy do not a worthwhile reading experience make.

The brief stretch of gripping emotional power toward the book's close passes, giving way to an implausible climax in much the way a creepy, silent snowfall melts the next morning, into sloppy brown slush on the streets.

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