Monday, August 30, 2010

"Never Look Away" by Linwood Barclay

David Harwood is a reporter with wife and young son. He takes them on a trip to an amusement park in the hope that it might cheer up his wife, who has been hinting at depression and suicidal thoughts. When his wife disappears from the park, he finds himself unable to prove she was even there. As more facts come to light, he finds himself a suspect in his wife's disappearance. While Detective Barry Duckworth collects evidence against him, David must find out what secrets are in his wife's past and whether she's the victim of a conspiracy - or the one behind it all.

I've previously read "No Time For Goodbye" and "Too Close To Home" by Linwood Barclay and found them to be great thrillers, in the same style as Harlan Coben. "Never Look Away" gets off to a good start, but there really isn't enough plot here to sustain the novel for its entire length. This one comes off as something you might see adapted into a TV movie - once the big reveal (which in itself is pretty predictable) is done and dusted, there isn't much else place for it to go. And the further the book goes along, the more David seems like a bit of a nitwit. However, despite the lack of twists in the narrative, Barclay is still able to generate considerable suspense. This is due mainly to very strong characterisation. The characters and their relationships are exceptionally well-drawn, making you care about what happens to them. And isn't this what a good novel should do? Even though the plot wasn't as twisty as I was hoping it to be, I was still hooked by the events because I wanted to find out what happened to the people involved. In particular, the relationship between David and his four-year-old son Ethan was very natural and believable, providing an on-going explanation and motivation for all of David's actions. A subplot involving the owner of a profit-based prison wanting to buy land in David's town takes up more room than it should, considering it really doesn't have much to do with Jan's disappearance, and there is about one ending too many. The saddest thing really is that, while an average thriller, "Never Look Away" is probably a lot better than most of the stuff out there on the shelves right now.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

"Play To Kill" by P.J. Tracy

The Monkeewrench team first introduced in "Want To Play?" is called upon by the FBI when videos of real murders start turning up on the Internet. Also involved are detectives Leo Magozzi and Gino Rolseth, since one of the murders occurred in their jurisdiction. Monkeewrench decide to develop software that can differentiate between fake and real murder videos (yeah, that one didn't ring true with me, either). A link is discovered in that comments were posted before the murders were committed, giving clues as to who would be killed, plus where and when. However, it must be determined whether it is the work of one murderer, or many, and just what connection does an alcoholic judge have to it all?

Let me just start by saying this is the stupidest, most inane, most unsatisfying thriller I have read in some time, and that spoilers are likely to follow. I am utterly gobsmacked that garbage of this nature can not only make it past an editor but also see the light of day as a published manuscript. P.J. Tracy, who is actually a mother-daughter team, took four years to deliver this plotless, suspenseless nonsense, which just boggles the mind.

First of all, while some may enjoy the "quirky" characters, I found them to be either personality-free (Magozzi, Grace MacBride), or cutesy, nauseating caricatures (Rolseth, the rest of the Monkeewrench crew). Everybody spends plenty of time sass-talking, to the point where it just feels like they're killing time. Don't they have a killer/killers to catch? Then we have the endless internal musings. Should Grace trust humanity again? Should Magozzi keep pursuing a relationship with Grace? Should Rolseth/several-other-briefly-introduced-detectives-and-sheriffs throw it all in and spend their days with their families? This sort of thing extends to even the most minor of characters (they show up in one or two chapters and are never heard from again), but we strangely never get a peek into the psyche of Annie, Harley and Roadrunner from Monkeewrench - odd, considering they've been central characters in all five damn books! I kept expecting Rolseth's Cadillac and Grace's dog Charlie to chime in with their thoughts about the universe. As for Rolseth, I don't think I've ever wished so fervently for a character to simply just shut the hell up.

Then we have the utterly lazy plotting. Since the characters are all having such a jolly good time contemplating the way of the world, or exchanging 'witty' dialogue, not much space is left over for suspense or plot twists. It pretty much goes like this: murder videos start showing up on the Internet. Characters find a way to possibly intercept said murders. Two of the potential murders that a majority of the book focuses on have nothing to do with anything. The bomb scare that makes up most of the last third of the book also has nothing to do with anything. Cue quick wrap-up that never identifies any of the killers, but offers a quick motive from the only minor character who appeared in more than two chapters. Conveniently, the whole case is solved before Monkeewrench ever get to use their dodgy real-murder-spotting software.

Go read "Want To Play?", the first book in this series. It's terrific. An absolute ripper. The other three are pretty decent thrillers also. "Play To Kill" is just astonishing in its ineptitude. Where are the plot twists? Where is the suspense? Where is the feeling that even one of our major characters is at risk or under threat? They all just sit around and exchange jokes. Or, in the case of Grace MacBride, sit around being a miserable bitch. I get really angry when I waste time, effort and money on worthless rubbish like this. As good as the previous four books were, I will never read another book by this duo again.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

"14" by J.T. Ellison

Lt. Taylor Jackson is faced with a case in which a copycat is duplicating the murders of a serial killer dubbed "The Snow White Killer", whose victims were young women with dark hair and pale skin. That killer disappeared some 20 years ago, and the new murderer is recreating his spree with alarming accuracy, although adding a few touches of his own. Taylor receives some help from FBI agent partner John Baldwin, whilst fretting about her upcoming wedding to him. Tension arises in the form of Charlotte Douglas, an FBI agent with the hots for John (not to mention his ex-lover), plus some valuable information regarding their killer. Thrown into the mess is Taylor's missing father, and his link to a mobster.

Wow, what a mess. I don't think Ellison was sure which book she wanted to write. A serial killer thriller about and old murderer and his apprentice? Or a police procedural about a police lieutenant torn between family and duty? So, yep, she simply decides to combine the two. While she manages to draw some links between the two plot strands, it's not enough for this to come off as a cohesive whole. For the first half of the book, Taylor and her team are tracking down a serial killer. For the second half of the book, they're trying to bring down a mobster, with the serial killer plotline wrapped up with little fanfare. In fact, it's hard to find a less exciting way to wrap up a psycho-murderer plotline. And since he manages to elude capture quite easily at the end without even being identified (will he show up in a later book? who knows?), makes you wonder what the whole damn point was.

Another secondary plotline involves Taylor's apprehension at getting married to Baldwin. It never feels genuine, and simply comes across as a desperate attempt to inject a little romantic tension into the proceedings, especially since this is published by Mira, who specialise in romantic fiction. The title "14" in itself bothered me - it has absolutely no relevance to the plot. When the book starts, there is mention of the fact that Snow White had 10 victims in total and the murderer has now reached 4 - but the body count quickly goes up from there, and there is no special significance attributed to the number 14 at any other point in the book. It's just further indication that Ellison seemed clueless as to what to do or where to go with her story. Half by-the-numbers serial killer thriller, half yawn-inducing-catch-the-mobster police procedural, this has no real plot twists, no startling character revelations, zero suspense - in other words, a one-hundred per cent fail.