See More About Me

At the moment, I don't think there's a writer who fascinates me more than Kent Braithwaite, though he's written only one novel which I haven't read and have no plans to buy. Kent Braithwaite's novel, "The Wonderland Murders," is a thriller about a Mexican-American PI named Jesse Ascencio who travels the California coast in search of an amusement-park killer. It may well be a great book. But it could not possibly be as gripping--as funny, as weird, as heartbreaking--as the 326 customer reviews that Kent Braithwaite has posted on Amazon.com, every one of which is a five-star rave of some book or other and virtually every one of which begins with a plug for "The Wonderland Murders," by Kent Braithwaite. Self-promotion is a painful reality for every struggling first novelist. Kent Braithwaite is no exception--except that this guy's feeling no pain.

Braithwaite reads constantly and posts reviews obsessively, specializing in his fellow mystery writers but making border raids on every conceivable genre. Typically, he'll begin a review with the phrase As a mystery writer with my debut novel in its initial release and then find some way to make his resume seem relevant to matter at hand. Often this is easy: "As a mystery writer with my debut novel in its initial release, I have been reading Robert Ludlum's thrillers for (gasp!) decades." But sometimes it is not easy: "As a California-based mystery writer with my debut novel in its initial release, I have a great interest in other California-based artists in many diverse fields. Ansel Adams is one of the finest photographers to ever receive wide recognition." And sometimes it's impossible, as in Braithwaite's tortured, five-star review of "The Beer Lover's Guide to the USA: Brewpubs, Taverns, and Good Beer Bars": "When I signed the publication contract for my first mystery novel, I suspected I may have some promotional journeys in store for me. I figured I'd be expected to travel to New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Denver, San Francisco, and other places I knew fairly well. I never realized I'd also be appearing in Anchorage, Plano, Modesto, Yuma, Palm Springs and countless other terrific towns across the United States promoting my novel. Since my book's publication, I've been doing all sorts of traveling, and"--OK, here comes the point--"this guide to watering holes has been a wonderful addition to my baggage."

Braithwaite's hope, clearly, is that Amazon customers will be curious enough to look up his own book and consider tossing it in their shopping cart. I for one stumbled into BraithWorld after reading his five-star paean to a novel I'd recently read and admired, "Peace Like a River," by Leif Enger. ("As an author with my first novel in its initial release, I wholeheartedly salute Leif Enger's debut work--Peace Like a River.") The customer reviews of Braithwaite's own novel career wildly between extravagant five-star raves and virtiolic one-star attacks, the latter written by people who bought "The Wonderland Murders" because they'd read the author's reviews online. A furious customer from Flushing, Michigan, titles his review "A Scam" and writes, "As a mystery reader without a novel in its initial release, I genuinely was bored silly by this stupid book. Beware of this amateur effort, despite the fact that this author has scattered a couple of hundred reviews over Amazon, neatly hitting everything that's popular and in varied genres, kissing up to each author's fans by giving a 5 star rating, then referring them to his own book. Is EVERYTHING out there really a 5 star book, Kent? This certainly isn't.... Review books, Kent, don't just use the space for self-aggrandizement."

Customers who hated "The Wonderland Murders" suspect that customers who loved it either know the author personally--or are the author personally. This is a dangerous charge, impossible to prove, though I admit I was suspicious of the five-star homage titled "A FINE BOOK BY A FINE MAN." The five-star review titled "'WONDERLAND' SMOKES," by someone named "Mystery Cat" in Raleigh, North Carolina, seemed authentic to me. But then I clicked on the "See More About Me" link next to Mystery Cat's name, read all Mystery Cat's online reviews and started to wonder if maybe he/she didn't have issues of his/her own: "'FIRESTORM' SMOKES.... 'INNKEEPING' SMOKES.... 'BARBARIANS' SMOKES...."

One of the things that makes Braithwaite so riveting is that it he's so damn obvious it. If you click on the "See More About Me" next to any of his reviews, you get sent to his reviewer's homepage, where you can read all 326 of his self-promotional Amazon reviews in a row. (Go ahead, knock yourself out..... ) What's more, you can peruse the 18 best-of lists that he's dreamed up for Amazon as well. There's his list "Marvelous Mysteries, by Kent Braithwaite, Mystery Writer," where his own novel pops up at No. 4. There's his list "Some Fine American Books, by Kent Braithwaite, An American Author," where his novel pops up at No. 4 once more. And there's even his list "Good Books from the Last Century, by Kent Braithwaite, Contemporary Author," which begins with "The Great Gatsby," "Catch-22," and "Rabbit, Run." Obviously nobody's going to put his own novel at No. 4 on a list like that. It's No. 5. "The Wonderland Murders" may not be as good as Dashiell Hammett's Complete Novels (No. 4), but at least it's better than "The Sun Also Rises" (No. 6).

While Braithwaite's reviews have obviously angered some Amazon customers, I find his frantic self-promotion to be weirdly calming, and can't help sort of liking the guy. Simply by reading his reviews--which are ostensibly about other people--I've learned that Braithwaite lives in Palm Desert, California, the golf capital of the world ("How I Play Golf," by Tiger Woods). I've learned that he was in first grade when President Kennedy was shot and that he remembers watching the school janitor lower the flag ("The Best-Loved Poems of Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy.") I've learned that he's been teaching American Government and Econmics for more than 20 years in a rural California high school with an almost entirely Hispanic student body ("The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement," by Susan Ferriss, et al). I've learned that he's married and that, only moments after the Twin Towers were attacked, he and his wife began worrying about biological warfare ("Germs," by Judith Miller, et al). I could go on and on--but that's Braithwaite's job.

So, perhaps unintentionally, Braithwaite has not only tirelessly promoted "The Wonderland Reviews" but created a truly postmodern work of art: an autobiography in 326 book reviews. After I'd written the bulk of this piece, I emailed Braithwaite several questions, some of which were softballs but some of which were a little touchy. How many books does he read a week? How much time does he spend on his Amazon reviews? Does the fact that he constantly mentions his own novel help sell it? Did he write any of the five-star raves of his own book? Braithwraite sent a very kind, very gentlemanly--and very long--reply which began, "NEWSWEEK.COM amazes me. I can't believe a humble mystery writer such as myself deserves any mention in your article on your site, but I learned ten years ago, when I served a stormy three years as teacher's union president while our school district was plunging into bankruptcy, never to turn down any media interview offer. Here comes my response....."

I think Braithwaite's answers deserve more airtime than I can give them here--see sidebar for an excerpt of the interview--but he insists he never intended to launch a Conspiracy of Kent. "I began mentioning my being a mystery writer as a way of letting review readers know I might just know a little something about writing," he says. "I did not intend the phrase to become a marketing gimmick." Braithwaite also insists that the occasional sniping he's received online doesn't bother him. "Life is too short (I am too busy) to dwell on negatives," he says. I wish that my work (and me, for that matter) would be loved by everyone but I realize that such is an impossible dream." Still, Braithwaite has begun inserting a defensive-sounding new passage into recent reviews--a clear response to the sayers of nay. "As a mystery author with my debut novel in its initial release," he often writes, "I do my best to read widely to learn which books work and which books don't. If a book doesn't succeed, I won't bother to review it. There are enough anonymous critics who get their kicks panning books while they keep themselves securely hidden namelessly in cyberspace." Braithwaite is not a man to hide, and he certainly doesn't want to remain nameless and anonymous. After all, he's a mystery author with his debut novel in its initial release.