Ed Lister is some sort of property magnate who is obsessed with finding the killer of his daughter. One year after daughter Sophie's murder, new evidence comes to light thanks to Sophie's friend Sam Metcalf, who has discovered some material on her computer, which Sophie used to borrow frequently. This leads Ed to a website called Home Before Dark and its sociopathic webmaster Ward. Ed hires cyber-detective Campbell Armour to track down Ward, whom he believes stalked Sophie over the Internet and finally killed her. Campbell's digging into the past uncovers Ward's haunted past, plus a possible connection to Ed, which makes Campbell suspicious of his client. Meanwhile, Ed is becoming increasingly obsessed by Jelena (aka Jelly), a girl half his age he chats with on the Internet.
"Home Before Dark" was a good book. It was never dull - the pace was fast, there were moments of genuine suspense, I kept questioning the true intentions of the characters, and I was gulping down Coke well into the night in an effort to stay awake long enough to finish it. While the solution to the mystery was much less interesting than what the set-up suggested, I can't deny this one kept me hooked. But where this book truly got it wrong was in the characters. First of all, I'm tired of male authors in this genre constantly painting the father as the one who truly cares for his kids, the one who will go to any lengths to protect/avenge them, while portraying the mother as uninterested, unsupportive and uncaring. I can't back up my claims with specific examples right now, but this is a blog entry, not a research paper....and besides, I'm right.
Anyway, Ed Lister isn't an engaging protagonist. He falls head over heels for someone he's never actually met. He and his wife actually have another child - a son, George - who gets mentioned a couple of times in the first half of the book, then basically disappears. Even the other characters describe Ed as pompous and unlikeable. So why should we, the reader, give him the time of day? Campbell Armour, the cyber-sleuth, is much more likeable. He obviously cares for his family, has a self-deprecating sense of humour, and comes across as plucky and intelligent. I cared about what happened to him. Finally, Jelena/Jelly is the most badly defined character to be found here. Maybe it was a male author inaccurately trying to create a complex female character, but I just found Jelly to pretty much be a prick-tease. She lies to Ed about every aspect of her life, keeps telling him that she can't talk to him anymore, only to egg him on a little more because she can't make up her mind, even pretends to be someone else so she can meet him. By the end of the book, I was hoping Ward might buck genre traditions and just cut off her head.
Even more pugnacious, and I'm going to get a little spoiler-ish here, but by the end, Ed's wife Laura admits she's been having an affair since before their daughter was even murdered, further pushing her into "uncaring bitch" territory and consequently justifying Ed's seeming abandonment of his family while creepily and obsessively pursuing Jelly. I don't know if the author has some sort of dislike of women, or is simply useless at writing about them, but it was certainly a huge drawback here. Anyway, I did enjoy "Home Before Dark" - if Maclean can work on his characterisation, the next book could be a real winner.