Back in the 90's and early 2000's, Byron Preiss Multimedia produced the most sustained run of Marvel novels that fans have ever seen. That run included around a couple of dozen Spider-Man novels. These novels differed from earlier efforts not only in the number and size of the stories (included at least four Spider-Man trilogies), but also because they were pretty much set in "current" Marvel Universe continuity.
A fair part of the credit for the success of those novels must go to Keith R.A. DeCandido who was the editor on a dozen of the Spider-Man books, and also the co-writer of one of them, specifically Spider-Man: Venom's Wrath. When the Byron Priess era came to an end, Keith moved onto other projects, and sank out of Spidey sight for a while. Then, a year or so back, Marvel announced that four publishers had signed up to the Marvel franchise, among them being Pocket Star Books, the only one of the four slated to release full novels.
So far, Pocket Star have produced two such novels. "Fantastic Four: War Zone", and this one, "Spider-Man: Down These Mean Streets." And, surprise surprise, Keith is back into the computer desk chair... as the sole author this time.
My review can be summarised pretty simply in three points. Firstly, this is a generally well-written book. Secondly, it's not perfect, and it might not please everybody. Thirdly, I haven't really enjoyed any of the nearly forty or more Spider-Man prose books I've ever read, so who the hell am I to comment?
All that deserves some clarification, so let's begin. As to the first point, Keith is a good solid writer. His prose is clear and effective, and he performs almost universally sound research on his topic. Some of the Spider-Man novels I have read have been cringe-worthy sheerly from the paucity of writing craft. Fear not, this book is not at all in that category.
So what then are the weaknesses? The primary complaint that some might have is that this book is as much a police novel as a super-hero novel. Sure, Spider-Man swings his fists a bit, but 90% of the action as such sees him facing third-rate thugs, or average folks hopped up on Triple-X, the drug which turns people into temporary gamma-powered super-types (before killing a fair few of them). There are a couple of battle-scenes at the end against the mastermind super-villain, but even they are pretty short and sweet.
I should clarify that I'm not objecting to that aspect of this book. I'm just warning you that the vast majority of the story involves Spidey and/or the NYPD (of which seemingly twenty-odd get names and personalities described) spending a lot of their time visiting victims in hospitals, tracing leads, struggling to determine if they have Probable Cause, or if they can use evidence obtained, etc., etc. Like a CSI type of thing, though with a bit more realism in depicting the slow pace of such investigations, and in identifying the real-life separation of roles between lab-cops versus detectives.
That slow pace is perhaps my first minor criticism. On a number of occasions, it kind of felt like the cops and Spidey were really failing to act. Given that Triple-X was a "menace with the force of a hurricane", it was surprising to see for example Spidey turn up at the apartment block that was dealing the stuff, nabbing the front-man outside, but then giving up because the crook wouldn't tell him which apartment number the drugs were in. What, no suspending upside-down from a lamp-post? No intimidation? No spider-sense identifying the location? Same with the cops, they often seemed to invent legal reasons for failing to act, for nothing more than to make the story a bit longer.
There's no editor credit in the book. There must have been one, but s/he didn't do a very good job in my opinion. Several concepts got repeated and repeated, and could easily have been trimmed - for example, the idea that cell phones present the caller's ID got referenced four times in a chapter. Alright already! Post-it notes was another. What, did 3M sponsor the book? A critical reading and trimming of a few paragraphs or even a chapter could have resulted in a much tighter story. Or alternatively, the space could have been well used for a decent plot twist, or a teasing sub-plot that might have spiced up the rather single-threaded storyline.
In fact, the simple linear flow of the book is the area where I think that the wasted potential of the story was most strongly felt. This "police novel" never really managed to become a "detective novel", due to the lack of layers in the plot. There were sub-plots (MJ gets her own thread) but while they contributed scene and character they didn't really add any complexity. Yes, MJ, Peter, the police, Aunt May, they all had their own scenes. But all they generally offered was yet another Triple-X case which caused property damage and the odd casualty, but invariably failed to provide a solid lead to the next person in the supply chain.
Having accepted that I was reading a "drug investigation" story instead of a spandex-clad cross-dimensional super-action tale, I think I felt that I wanted more of an investigation. Where were the red herrings? Heck, where were the car chases? The clues dropped by careless drug dealers? Even the "mystery villain" wasn't much of a mystery.
DeCandido is a good writer, he loves the Spider-Man characters, he loves police drama, he does thorough research, and he respects continuity. All of those factors were equally present in Spider-Man: Venom's Wrath, which I heartily enjoyed, and it's no surprise that the same factors should appear in "Mean Streets".
But this time around it just feels there were too many characters running around investigating the same crime over and over. Unfortunately by contrast there was not enough real action, not enough suspense, and not enough detecting going on in what could otherwise have been a fun super-hero detecting story.
Readable, but ultimately not quite satisfying. Three webs.