Saturday, February 20, 2010

"What To Do When Someone Dies" by Nicci French

Ellie is understandably shocked when she is informed her husband Greg has died in a car accident. Even worse, there was another woman in the car with him - a woman by the name of Milena Livingstone that she has never heard of before. She begins obsessively detailing every moment of the last month of Greg's life in an effort to prove that Greg and Milena were not having an affair. The police and her friends think she is acting crazily out of her grief, but nothing will stop her in her mission to show that there was something fishy about Greg's death.

A visit to Milena's business partner Frances is initially out of curiosity, but she winds up offering her services to help clean up the business, which is in disarray after Milena's death. She gives her name as Gwen (one of her closest friends), and this new "job" allows her more personal access into Milena's life, which only exacerbates her obsession with making everybody believe that her husband was not an adulterer. Is she simply crazy? Or is there something more to Greg's death than the police investigation or inquest revealed?

For the first 100 pages or so, the book really lives up to its title. Ellie mourns, attends the inquest, organises the funeral - all the details one would conceivably attend to after the death of a spouse. It doesn't exactly make for exciting reading. Things pick up somewhat after she deceptively gets the job at Milena's old business. There's an effective undercurrent of suspense as we wonder just how much of a hole Ellie will dig for herself, and whether the new people in her life should be trusted or not. Although not a lot ever really happens, I was quite drawn into the story - more than I thought I would be after the very slow start. French takes us into every corner of Ellie's psyche, delivering one of the more fully-rounded main characters I've come across in a suspense thriller. Ellie isn't always likeable - often quite exasperating - but she feels real, which is why I kept reading to find out what happened to her.

"What To Do When Someone Dies" isn't for those who like their thrillers zippy and twisty, that's for sure. But through perserverance I was totally sucked in and ended up quite enjoying the experience.

Friday, February 19, 2010

"Evidence" by Jonathan Kellerman

Psychologist Alex Delaware and detective Milo Sturgis arrive at a crime scene in which two dead people are entwined in a lover's embrace. They are quickly able to ID the male, but the identity of the female remains unknown. The male - Desmond Backer - was recently employed at a now-defunct architectural firm based on being environmentally friendly. Most of the females there had a relationship with Backer at some point or another, except for one of the partners, Helga Gemein. She's a rich Swiss who believes that humanity is a blight on the environment, and therefore didn't like anybody too much. Of course, the other partners in the firm aren't too happy with Helga either.

Alex and Milo interview the females who dallied with Desmond but, obviously, there's a lot more going on than originally thought. The investigation manages to pull up links with the brother of a sultan from the Indonesian island of Sranil who appears impossible to track down - and may have been involved in a murder. There's Desmond's own murky past which seems to have involved some amateur eco-terrorism. And trying to identify the female gets them involved with the FBI, as she was one of their informants. I'll leave it there, as to reveal much more would defeat the purpose of reading the book.

Jonathan Kellerman on auto-pilot is usually better than most of the stuff out there and this is no exception. The whole thing seems almost formulaic, yet you'd be hard-pressed to find another crime novel on the shelf with as many twists and turns as this one. Some little factoid dropped early on gains significance later. A minor character you wouldn't think twice about turns out to be much more involved than you would have guessed. It's the work of a writer who knows what they're doing - and doing it well. Fans of Kellerman will know what to expect, and new readers will undoubtedly be thrilled at discovering of the genre's best.

What I've yet to figure out is why Alex Delaware is even around? He doesn't get paid for tagging along with Milo everywhere, yet he's allowed to sit in on interviews, visit crime scenes and generally participate in all sorts of police matters that no civilian would ever be allowed to join in on. Yet he doesn't really contribute much other than to speculate with Milo about theories as to whodunit and whatnot. That's the other big problem with Kellerman's novels of late - Alex and Milo bounce around all sorts of outlandish scenarios and hey presto! They're right! It lacks credibility, and seems a cheap way to move the story onto the next point. The other minor quibble is the one-word titles he's been giving his novels - "Rage", "Obsession", "Compulsion", "Bones" etc and now "Evidence". I'm not sure why the title "Evidence" is more appropriate here than any one of his other books; it seems the title choices are just as generic as the plot structures. But at the end of the day, Kellerman is still one of the few authors you can count on to deliver an unpredictable and enjoyable crime mystery - every time.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

"Little Face" by Sophie Hannah

New mother Alice Farncourt comes home from a session at the health club, only to claim that the baby in the cot is not her own. Her husband David thinks she is insane, and tells the police as much. Her mother-in-law Vivienne sits on the fence, unwilling to believe her son or his wife is lying. Intercut with these current events are chapters set one week later, in which David has reported his wife and baby missing to detectives Simon Waterhouse and Charlie Zailer. As the two storylines merge, the detectives must figure out the mystery behind the baby-swap and whether there is any connection to the murder of David's first wife, Laura, which was thought to have been solved, as well as Alice's current disappearance.

There's no denying "Little Face" is a very well-written, well-constructed mystery. Even though the story keeps jumping back and forth in time, it never becomes confusing. The suspense is solid as several different scenarios are dangled in front of us as to the reason behind all the mysterious events. Hannah doesn't attempt to pull the wool over our eyes with any out-of-left-field plot twists - you either figure it out yourself or you don't. Very refreshing. I had my suspicions, but could never come to any firm conclusions, so I let the story carry me along. There was also strong characterisation, giving credibility to various characters' actions and behaviours. For example, I thought the main character of Alice was a bit of a wet napkin, but Hannah gets you inside her head so skilfully that you understand the reasons behind the decisions/actions she makes, even if you don't agree with them. And, ultimately, I wanted her to triumph against adversity. I felt the solution to everything a little pat, and the motives behind some actions pretty far-fetched, leaving this one sometimes feeling like a quaint Miss Marple mystery.

However, if you're after a psychological thriller that keeps you guessing, with well-defined and believable characters, "Little Face" is the one to get. My quibbles with it are minor, and the good points certainly outweigh the bad. Hannah is a talented writer that I will be reading more from.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

"Precious Blood" by Jonathan Hayes

Dr. Edward Jenner is a forensic pathologist called upon to act as a private consultant by the father of a murder victim. She had been found nailed upside-down to the wall in her flat. Although he's not a part of the medical examiner's office (having retired after post-traumatic stress disorder related to recovering bodies from 9/11), the detectives investigating the case are happy to have him around. After checking with other departments for similar crimes, Jenner comes across a crime scene in which the decapitated victim's head was placed in some spilled milk. Examining both bodies reveals that a weird script has been etched on the backs of their necks, indicating a serial killer at work.

On top of this, the roommate - and witness - to the most recent murder has been advised by her uncle to take refuge with Jenner, since said uncle lives in the same building and trusts him. This roommate, Ana de Jong, is quite traumatised by her experience (she narrowly avoided also being killed), which leads to feelings developing between her and Jenner, despite her being nearly half his age. Further investigation finds a link between the deaths and the dates in which martyrs were killed. Jenner and the police must use this information to possibly predict the next potential victim and the day that they will die, all while facing the possibility that Ana is still a target.

"Precious Blood" is a standard serial killer thriller, maybe just a touch above average. Hayes thankfully manages to display his research and knowledge without getting too dry, technical or boring. And the police investigation angle is also well-handled - even if one of the clues they track down is a dead end, it usually leads to a new direction in the story. The pacing is tight, and the finale has some solid suspenseful moments. So why am I not urging crime fans to rush and hunt this one down?

Basically because of the character of Ana de Jong. She is an absolute pain in the ass. She spends pretty much the whole book on a "poor-me" crying jag. She doesn't display one iota of wit, strength or crackling personality. Sure, perhaps her behaviour is a realistic portrayal of a twenty-one-year old university student after witnessing a murder and only just escaping with her life, but it sure gets tiresome with her constant juvenile attitude and bouts of sobbing. Jenner's attraction to her - and bedding of - can only be described as some sort of middle-aged male wish-fulfillment, as I doubt many guys would put up with such high-maintenance. As for Jenner himself, he makes for a very bland protagonist, and his sudden transformation into superhero during the climax is not very believable, especially considering he had broken ribs. But he is at least smart, which is what keeps the plot moving.

So, while this does deliver as a serial killer thriller, the unappealing main characters and their unrealistic relationship does rob if of some suspense and credibility. I'll happily revisit this author again, so long as Ana de Jong is nowhere to be found.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

"Eye Candy" by R.L. Stine

I'm pretty sure this was never actually released in Australia - I was never able to find it in any bookstore. But I managed to get hold of a copy for just $7 through Book Depository. I was intrigued because this, along with "The Sitter" (which I've yet to track down), was a short-lived attempt by former teen/tween thriller writer R.L. Stine to re-tackle the adult suspense genre. His initial attempt - "Superstitious" - was apparently not very successful. These two books came out around 2003/2004, and I'm guessing they weren't terribly successful either, because he hasn't tried another adult thriller since. Last time I checked, Stine was back in "Goosebumps"-style territory, though I don't know how much luck he'll have since the teens and tweens are only reading the "Twilight" books these days. I refuse to have anything to do with "Twilight" - I liked vampires back when Buffy and Angel were on TV and the teenagers actually had witty dialogue and vampires didn't bloody sparkle.....but I'm getting totally off-topic here.

"Eye Candy" has Lindy Sampson heading into the unpredictable world of Internet dating a year after the death of her fiance. She sets up dates with three guys who are all really into her, as well as another guy she happens to run into at a bar. However, the fun world of dating is short-lived when she receives a phone call telling her to "never say no to me!" She also receives a threatening note, and somebody steals all her panties! Of course, from this point on, all her dates act as suspicious as all get-out, leaving her unable to tell which one is mentally unbalanced. Heck, even the police detective she calls upon for help (he used to be partners with her dead fiance), acts funny around her. Oh yeah, and her roommate Ann-Marie's boyfriend Lou has a thing for her and likes to sexually harrass her when he's drunk. In any case, Lindy has to go on a lot of dates she doesn't want to, all the while wondering if the next date will end up with her being murdered.

It's not surprising that R.L. Stine's foray into thrillers aimed at adults didn't last. His writing style will simply never cut it. Flowing over from the days of "Goosebumps" and "Fear Street" is the simplistic writing style and short chapters, many of which end on a false scare. There's a few F-bombs chucked in, a couple of sex scenes and stronger violence, but it still felt like I was reading a "Fear Street" book from the early 90s. It's very under-plotted, and I could figure out pretty easily where everything was headed. I think if even James Patterson attempted to hand in a thriller with these sorts of twists, the editor would give it back to him. But it was engaging in its own trashy, empty way, and there was a certain comfort in reading an "adult" book that took me back to my own teen/tween days. And I'll read 100 more books like this before I'll go anywhere near "Twilight"!

"Afraid" by Jack Kilborn

Sheriff Ace Streng might be nearing seventy, but it's not hard protecting the town of Save Haven, which has a fairly low population - one that gets lower once tourist season is over. And the population starts to decline once more after a helicopter crash - a site he's summoned to by Josh and Elmer, two of his deputies. Meanwhile, Fran is a waitress preparing to finish for the night when she and the last patron of the day are attacked. Ace, Josh and Elmer are also attacked when they investigate further into the crash. As for the rest of the town, they've all headed over to the school gymnasium after being told they're the winners of a big lottery, not really caring how bogus that sounds....

Managing to survive repeated attacks, Ace, Josh, Elmer and Fran come to realise there is a group of super-strong soldiers in town with a scary mission: Isolate. Terrorize. Annihilate. And these soldiers keep asking for the whereabouts of one Warren Streng - Ace's estranged brother....

"Afraid" gets off to a creepy, suspenseful start - and never stops. The characters - and the reader - barely have time to take a break before the next ordeal starts. This is an approach that I loved, as it made for a book that was never dull. The only problem is that sometimes it gets to be a little too much, which robs it of suspense. For example, the sequence in which Fran is trying to rescue her son Duncan from her neighbour's burning house just goes on and on. It's totally superfluous to the rest of the story and quite contrived - how convenient that the elderly neighbour has a bomb shelter and has gone crazy and is trying to kill him? Similarly, there is a subplot involving Elmer's fiance Jessie Lee, who is one of the townsfolk at the gymnasium, and the only one suspicious of what is going on. It leads to some enjoyable, suspenseful sequences, but never really leads anywhere.

Nonetheless, "Afraid" is an action-oriented story that was a welcome change from my usual stomping grounds in the crime genre, one that is lately getting dragged down by authors more concerned with authenticity than tight, twisty plotting. But enough of that. There's plenty of thrills, spills, gore and suspense in this book to keep any fan of action or horror satisfied. It's pacing never flags and it would make a terrific movie.

"Pretty Little Things" by Jilliane Hoffman

Laney Emerson is your typical 13-year-old girl, facing problems with her stepfather and trying to fit in at a new school. And as her luck would have it, her Internet boyfriend is actually a sick pervert who kidnaps her at their first special meeting. He keeps in some underground cavern, where there appear to be other girls held captive.

Special Agent Bobby Dees is the guy at the head of the task force dedicated to tracking Laney down. They've been galvanized into action by the media's response to Laney's mother's sob story, even though she appeared to care little for her daughter, figuring she had run away. Dees had previously been considered a Golden Boy due to his ability to locate missing children, alive or dead. But since the disappearance of his own daughter a year ago, some are questioning whether it is appropriate for him to be a part of this task force.

It soon becomes apparent that the kidnapper is making this personal for Bobby - sending him communications through a journalist who is attempting to reignite his career through Laney's story. Meanwhile, Bobby's wife Luann simply wants to move away from town due to the stress of not knowing what has happened to their missing daughter.

"Pretty Little Things" is so routine and derivative that it's hard to believe anybody could be bothered to write it. It dances around the sordid subject matter (whether that's for better or worse is hard to decide) and simply goes through the motions as Bobby and his team try to track down the kidnapper. The chapters concerning Lacey's plight do have a bit of an edge, but not nearly enough to make this stand out from the pack. Author Hoffman is former attorney herself and her previous novels have had a strong courtroom setting which is sorely lacking here, as this element is clearly her forte. All the stuff involving police and FBI procedure, forensics etc etc smacks of research, and is fairly laboured. As for the revelation of the kidnapper, it's so groan-inducingly obvious it's hard to tell whether it was meant to be a secret. Basically - who else could it have been?

A killer/kidnapper who hoards his victims in underground caverns has been done by, of course, James Patterson in "Kiss The Girls", but to also much better effect in Chris Mooney's "The Missing" - and probably countless other serial killer thrillers. You may as well track down any one of them, as I imagine it won't be much different to this one. As for Hoffman, go grab her debut novel "Retribution", which is an exciting and gripping combination of both serial killer thriller and courtroom thriller. The sequel "Last Witness" isn't as good, but sets up some intriguing scenario for a further sequel (which I'm still hoping might one day surface). Don't even bother with "Plea Of Insanity". I know that the crime market is very large and authors are going to inevitably cover the same material, but that doesn't mean we have to put up with such by-the-numbers fare such as this.