Tuesday, July 27, 2010

"Last Known Victim" by Erica Spindler

In post-Katrina New Orleans, several severed right hands are found in an old refrigerator. About the same time, Captain Patti O'Shay's husband, also a police captain, is found murdered. Both cases quickly go cold. Two years later, both cases get re-opened when a body is discovered with its right hand missing. Underneath the body is O'Shay's husband's police badge.

The investigation quickly establishes a link to young stripper Yvette Borger, who believes she is being stalked by an obsessed secret admirer who calls himself "The Artist". Along with detectives Spencer Malone and Stacy Killian, O'Shay puts her career on the line to protect Yvette and possibly uncover her husband's murderer. However, Yvette is soon uncovered as a less-than-credible witness, with much of her story not adding up. Is there a killer on the loose, or is Yvette simply just stringing them all along in a bizarre fantasy of her own making?

This is probably Spindler's best work to date. While never an outstanding writer, I've always found her books to be solid, dependable thrillers, if a little predictable. "Last Known Victim" is suspenseful, fast-paced and has many plot twists, keeping the truth neatly hidden. I was quite pleased that I was unable to anticipate the identity of the killer. Keeping matters lively was the antagonistic relationship between Yvette and the members of the police force. She's an insolent brat, no doubt, but I actually really enjoyed the character. I'm sure many readers will find her a pain in the ass, yet I felt Spindler did a good job in juggling her good and bad characteristics. Nothing worse than a cliched, straight-forward stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold. I'm not saying Yvette is a fully-rounded, complex individual akin to something you might find in literature, but her antics were believable under the circumstances, and often amusing.

The only minor quibble I have here is the relationship between Spencer and Stacy (they appeared previously in "Killer Takes All"). Spencer's off-hand "macho" no-big-deal marriage proposal reeks of the sort of synthetic dramatic tension found only in fiction, whether it be book or film. I've known plenty of guys over the years who have gotten engaged (several just recently) and married, and they all took it pretty darn seriously. The resulting fall-out from his ridiculous proposal is tiresome and doesn't ring true at all. Then again, for most of the novel Spencer doesn't exactly come across as particularly cluey, so maybe he really is brain-dead.

Thankfully, however, that only comprises a small part of the novel (most other crime novels these days, it would seem, focus on the relationship aspect more than the crime aspect, yes I'm looking at you, Karin Slaughter). Here, Spindler mostly seems focused on delivering an exciting, twisty murder mystery and she succeeds.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

"Web Of Evil" by J.A. Jance

Ali Reynolds is heading to Los Angeles to finalise her divorce from husband Paul Grayson, who is set to marry his pregnant mistress, April Gaddis, the day after the proceedings are over. He never shows at the hearing - but that's because someone had trussed him up, slapped him in the boot of a car and left it in the path of an oncoming train. Ali winds up as a suspect in the murder, and things start looking especially bad for her when it is revealed that Paul never had time to change his will and she remains his sole beneficiary. A sense of sympathy results in her getting involved in April's plight, which makes her life even more complicated and ultimately gets her caught up in the web that ended her husband's life.

After too many books to count in which proceedings went nowhere fast, "Web Of Evil" was a small, but refreshing change. It's by no means a terrific book, and far too many contrivances pile up as it heads towards its finish, but at least SOMETHING HAPPENS. There's no slogging through endless, minute technical detail as evidence is collected from crime scenes, or characters throwing motives back and forth while sitting around on their asses waiting for results to come back from the lab. Jance seems to operate on this outrageous, novel notion that you can have a little action and suspense in your story, and that your climax doesn't need a Scooby-Doo surprise villian popping up to explain their motive that had barely been hinted at in the previous 300 pages (sorry, a direct reference to "Broken", a letdown that still rankles me). In "Web Of Evil" the characters are pro-active in both sorting out their problems and tracking down the source of them. Unfortunately, this is where my big quibble with this book arises.

Throughout her turmoil, Ali counts on help from both her mother and a police officer friend by the name of Dave Holman. Through the latter, they are privy to all sorts of insider information because Dave just happens to be a former marine and several of his marine buddies are now in different areas of law enforcement. When the plot calls for it, Dave conveniently has a friend he can call on for help. Consequently, as the book nears its finish, Ali doesn't so much seem like an independent woman solving her own problems as she does a woman simply being in the right place at the wrong time because Dave and his buddies already have everything figured out and are letting her tag along out of the kindness of their hearts. When she's allowed to accompany them on a major police takedown, I was almost taken - right out of the book.

It seems like a no-win situation in the crime/thriller genre. I hate a police procedural so focused on accuracy that they forget to include any suspense or action or even much of a plot (or in the case of Stuart MacBride and James Patterson, about four or five mini-plots that have nothing to do with each other). On the other hand, I get fed up with the more pacy thrillers which suspend disbelief with the never-ending supply of helpers the protagonist can conjure up at the drop of a hat when the plot demands it. There don't seem to be many books out there that can tread the fine line between the two (my favourite authors Tess Gerritsen and Robert Crais would be examples of those who can). Then there are the crime authors who got their start in category romance, but that's a whole other issue....

"Web Of Evil" did the trick for me after a seemingly never-ending parade of complete yawners. It's not perfect, but the characters are both believable and likeable, the plot moves at a solid pace, and the ending doesn't come out of left field - it's not predictable, but it's an expected outcome from all the clues and hints dropped throughout the story. I'll be interested in taking a look at this author's other works.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

"Broken" by Karin Slaughter

The body of college student Allison Spooner is discovered in the lake, but despite the presence of what looks like a suicide note, the death is quickly determined as murder, thanks to a stab wound in her neck. It doesn't take long for them to arrest Tommy Braham, an intellectually disabled young man with a crush on the victim. But the arrest goes bad and one of the detectives is badly injured.

Sara Linton is back in town for Thanksgiving, and receives a phone call saying that Tommy is desperate to see her. When she arrives at the prison, he is dead, having written the words "Not Me" in his own blood. Knowing that Lena Adams is one of the detectives on the case and that she has a tendency to screw up everything she touches (plus she blames her for the death of her police chief husband), Sara calls the Georgia Bureau Of Investigation, hoping they might uncover Lena's incompetence and end her career for good. Will Trent, whom Sara worked with in "Genesis", is sent over. He quickly ascertains that Lena and Interim Police Chief Frank Wallace are indeed hiding something. Uncovering a motive for murder, however, proves much more difficult.

It's been a long time since I've read a zippy, twisty crime thriller and unfortunately, "Broken" hasn't broken the drought. This one is excruciatingly slow-paced. We discover in the prologue that Allison is killed at the lake. The detectives take until PAGE 200 to confirm it. If the author had removed the prologue, this revelation might have evoked perhaps an "ok, that's interesting" response, rather than my muttering of "it's about goddamn time". Alas, things don't particularly speed up from there, so I doubt it would have made much difference. This is one of those books where the solution to the crime is rather simple and unexciting, and barely justifies the long wait it takes to get there. Is it wrong to expect just a little excitement and suspense while reading a supposed crime thriller? Everybody is just going through the motions - collecting evidence, speculating about motive or in Sara's case, moping about her dead husband. I'm sure it's all very accurate, but it's also absolutely, stultifyingly DULL. There's no story here! Just 300-odd pages of rambling before the arbitrary identity of the killer is revealed and everything gets neatly wrapped up.

On top of this, Slaughter continues to fall into the same trap that permeated the other novels. She apparently killed off Jeffrey Tolliver to shake the series out of its equilibrium and approaching staleness. Now, instead of Sara spending each book with a different reason to be angry at her husband, she now spends each book moping about his death and their supposedly perfect, wonderful relationship (even though each previous book has clearly discredited this - they were always arguing!). She was a real weak link in "Genesis", and even though she doesn't actually appear much here, all of her scenes typically involve her crying about Jeffrey. As for me, I'm glad Jeffrey's dead. He was annoying. Will Trent is a much more interesting character. The hints at romance between him and Sara also ring false - I mean, how are we supposed to buy this plot direction when Sara is still barely coping with Jeffrey's death nearly four years later and at one point says: "Jeffrey has ruined other men for me"? I suspect that, despite suggestions at the book's conclusion that she's ready to move on, Sara will be spending the next book in much the same frame of mind, not moving the series anywhere.

Anything good to say? Well, Will Trent is probably the most likeable character Slaughter has created. He's complex, the world has dealt him some tough blows, but he's not a pain in the ass. Lena Adams is also not nearly as annoying as she usually is. Even to the point where it sometimes doesn't even feel like we're dealing with the same character from previous books. I never thought I'd see the day in this series where Lena was more tolerable than Sara.

But just because you like a couple of characters is not nearly reason enough to slog through this murky, near plot-less bore. There is zero suspense, a feeble mystery with precious few suspects, meaning barely a plot twist in sight. If you like lots and lots and lots AND LOTS of technical detail and little else, this might satisfy you. I normally look forward to each new Slaughter release, but this is easily one of her worst.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

"Blood Runs Cold" by Alex Barclay

Special Agent Ren Bryce is chosen to head up the task force investigating the murder of another FBI Agent, Jean Transom. The investigation is hampered by the fact that the body gets swept away by an unexpected avalanche and can't be located. She falls for her informant, which could possibly compromise the investigation.

That's about as much plot that can be described for this deadeningly paced junk. You could easily skip to page 267 (part two) and barely miss a thing. That's how little happens in the first two thirds of the book. Since there is no body, there aren't many avenues for the investigation to take. Instead, Ren gets into a relationship with informant Billy Waites, who works at the Brockton Filly, a local pub. Most of the book is taken up with their stop-start romance and Ren's calls to her shrink to complain about her complicated life. Combine that with Ren and her task force colleagues' constant sass-talking and you'd be forgiven for thinking that nobody involved seems particularly concerned with tracking down a murderer, least of all the author.

The mystery gets wrapped up with little fanfare (there's a distinct paucity of suspects), and then thirty-odd pages are left over for the author to deliver a series of twists related to (very) minor subplots sprinkled earlier throughout the story. But because there has been so little detail or build-up regarding these subplots, said twists evoke little more than a "so what?" mentality. They hardly justify the fact we've slogged through endless pages of Ren's paranoia, insecurities and general whining.

Alex Barclay is the author of two previous novels, "Darkhouse" and "The Caller", both of which I've read - and they're not bad. They featured a different protagonist. It's quite rare for a crime author to abandon a series of books featuring a main character, only to start a new series with another character (a follow-up Ren Bryce thriller called "Time Of Death" has just hit stores at the time of writing, one of the reasons I picked up this long-ago-purchased-but-not-yet-read thriller). One can possibly assume the other series wasn't selling well and publishers urged Barclay to start afresh? But on the evidence of this appalling go-nowhere snoozefest, it's hard to think why. "Darkhouse" and "The Caller" were much better novels and I cannot think of a legitimate reason why anybody should plunk down cash for this drivel.