Review of The Fourth Wall – Book 3 of the Dagmar Shaw series by Walter Jon Williams


This book is told in first person present tense and this time, we are not in Dagmar’s viewpoint. The protagonist in this story is Sean Makin, ex-child star who at the height of his acting career was a household name and earned millions – which his parents have all taken. So as a failed adult actor, he is reduced to humiliating himself in shows like Celebrity Pitfight – think of Gladiators crossed with I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here

4thwallWhen he meets Dagmar Shaw and is considered for the lead part in her latest film project, he thinks his dreams have come true. However, what Sean doesn’t know is that people often have a shortened life expectancy around Dagmar. Perhaps he should have paid more attention to the SUV that nearly knocked him down…

I’ve read all three books in this series. One of its strengths is that you don’t have to read any of the others to fully enjoy this particular book, where we have moved on. However, having read the first two, one of the pleasures was to see Dagmar through the lens of someone else – someone so essentially self-absorbed that she wasn’t particularly important to him. Until the end, that is…

So, change of protagonist; change of viewpoint and tense; complete change of scenario – gone are the politics and world-awareness of the first two books. Sean is only vaguely conscious there is a vicious war going on, as all his attention and energy is focused on Hollywood and events unfolding around him. Does it work?

Oh yes – this is an absolute joy. This is the book where Williams really hits his stride – and confirms for me just how uncomfortable he was with Dagmar as the main protagonist. Because Sean is inspired – there are layers in his characterisation that are wonderful, both tragic and hilarious. There were always occasional shafts of dark humour lancing through Williams’ other two books in the series – but in the character of Sean, Williams has given his readers an intimate and unforgiving insight into the life of a Hollywood actor. It is pathetic, funny and shocking by turns – all delivered in Sean’s pinpoint-sharp voice. The whodunit running through the filming is entertainingly twisty – I enjoyed the unexpectedness of the deaths and trying to work out who was the perpetrator.  And the fourth wall of the title?  This is the invisible barrier that the actors have to reach through in order to reach their audience.

There has been some criticism that the final denouement was something of an anti-climax. Which had me scratching my head, wondering whether we’d been reading the same book. I thought the ultimate twist provided by Dagmar was an amazing conclusion to the story – although I’ll concede that the whodunit discovery was slightly workaday. But surely, isn’t that the point? Isn’t that Williams playing a game with his readers – giving them a relatively bland payoff, as a caricature of a Hollywood-type ending? If he’d left it at that, then I think they have some cause for grumbling – but he doesn’t. He goes on to produce the real ending, which delivers an almighty punch.

All in all, this is one of the best books I’ve read in 2012. Sean is a wonderful creation and I’m hoping that Williams hasn’t done with him – I’d love another slice of Sean’s life. Please?

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