Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"Caught" by Harlan Coben

Wendy Tynes is a reporter who likes to catch pedophiles in the act - and does so live on her TV show "Caught In The Act". Her latest target is social worker Dan Mercer. Haley McWaid is an impeccably-behaved grade-A high school student who disappears without a trace.

Three months later, Haley is still missing, with the case very much cold, while Wendy's less-than-legal shenanigans in trying to catch Dan Mercer sees a judge throwing out the charges against him. The bad publicity results in her losing her job. Nagged by a strong feeling that all is not as it seems, as well as wanting to restore her reputation, Wendy starts to dig deeper into the events that made her and her TV show target Dan in the first place. Inevitably, it opens up a whole can of worms. It seems all of Dan's college roommates have had downfalls of their own. Have they all been set up? When Dan is seemingly murdered and a link established between him and Haley McWaid, things start getting even messier.

Harlan Coben is typically one of the more reliable thriller authors out there. His novels have established their own kind of formula, but they're entertaining and usually much better than most in the genre. Unfortunately, "Caught" is his weakest, clunkiest effort so far. Coben only keeps the truth hidden because a great deal of the novel simply seems to involve Wendy tracking somebody down to talk to them, only for her interviewee to respond with something along the lines of: "I can't speak to you" or "I don't want to talk about it". It happens over and over again and just gets frustrating. Certain characters keep the truth hidden only because the plot demands it, not because it makes any sense. By the end, I didn't feel as if I'd read a thriller with honest plot twists and revelations. It was all very manufactured and artificial.

A recurring theme in many of Coben's novels is how much a parent loves their child and how far they would go to protect them. I'm sure it's a reflection of how close Coben is to his own family, and that's a great thing, but he bangs on and on about it here to the point of nauseum. Okay, you love your child! We get it! You'll do anything to protect them! We get it! Parenthood is a precious, fleeting, special thing! WE F***ING GET IT!!!! Seriously, just about every other paragraph has one of the characters blathering on about how much they love their child, or recalling a special memory, blah blah blah. There are chapters written from the point of view of Haley's mother Marcia, father Ted and sister Patricia, for the single purpose of ramming this viewpoint down our throats, as none of these characters play much a role in the proceedings other than to worry about their daughter/sister. Usually, whenever Coben writes from the point of view of a particular character, it's because they have something to contribute to the plot, or that character will become important later. Not here.

Is "Caught" an anomaly in an otherwise impressive output? Or has Coben lost his touch? It's silly to dismiss him over one bad book. This is nowhere near as awful as "Play To Kill" or "Broken". Despite the endless 'I love my kids' drivel, this travels along at a decent enough pace and I read it in two or three sittings. Yet neither do I think it's unfair to hold a strong author to higher standards than what is delivered here. There's no question I'll be picking up the next Coben offering and hoping for the best.

"Bloodline" by Mark Billingham

Detective Inspector Tom Thorne latest case involves a series of murders in which the only connecting element is a sliver of X-ray found on the bodies. It is quickly discovered that the victims are all children of the victims of serial killer Raymond Garvey, who murdered seven women. He is now dead thanks to a brain tumour, so the suspicion of Thorne and his team is that the murderer must be someone who knew and was close to Raymond Garvey. While looking into the life of Garvey, the team must also try to protect those who are still targets, in particular Debbie Mitchell, the rough, abrasive mother of a mentally handicapped child.

"Bloodline" is almost a return to form for Billingham, after the truly dreadful "Death Message". The first third is tightly paced and enjoyable. Unfortunately, everything that happens is outlined very neatly on the back of the book. Once it's established that a diabolical killer wants to off the children of Raymond Garvey's victims - which happens fairly early - there isn't much else for the narrative to go. Thorne's team do what most detectives in this genre do these days - plod about interviewing folk, waiting for test results and in Thorne's case, find something else to be miserable about. This time, it's the fact that his partner Louise has had a miscarriage. How does he feel about this? How does this affect his relationship with Louise? Was he ready to be a father? Is he ready to try again? It just goes on and on like that before the narrative once again starts gaining speed before the climax. Unfortunately - once again - Billingham botches what could have been quite an exciting ending, with one character's actions coming out of left field and not making much sense. SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER - why go to all the trouble of escaping from a killer if you're just planning on committing suicide anyway?

Billingham is a very on-and-off author. He can deliver absolute dreck like "The Burning Girl" and "Death Message", or top-notch thrillers like "Sleepyhead" and "Buried". "Bloodline" has a combination of his best and worst traits. The plot is more interesting and exciting than usual, but gets too sidetracked with the intricate miseries of its central character's life. If Billingham can resist the urge to go back to British gang-turf-war rubbish (which populated his worst novels), I imagine things can only go up from here.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

"Live To Tell" by Lisa Gardner

After an entire family is slaughtered, detective D.D. Warren believes that the father - now in intensive care - is a possible suspect. However, when a similar crime occurs, it's obvious something sinister is going on. The investigation leads to a pediatric psych ward that treats extremely disturbed or violent children. As it happens, one of the workers there, Danielle Burton, was the lone survivor of an incident in which her father murdered her entire family. Could there be a connection? Intercut with all of this is the story of Victoria Oliver, a woman who has had to make huge sacrifices in order to care for and protect her eight-year-old son, who is a budding violent psychopath.

"Live To Tell" is unfortunately another victim of the scenario in which a writer gets too attached to their research. Lisa Gardner is one of my favourite authors, but her latest offering has failed to live up to her previous releases. The most frustrating thing here is that this had so much potential. It's a fascinating premise, one you don't find too often in this genre. Entire families being murdered - both past and present - violent, unpredictable children and the possible connections between them all. For a little while, I was really into the book. But the intrigue fizzled out as it became apparent the plot wasn't going anywhere. Once all the intriguing elements are established, Gardner spends far too much time holding things close to her vest in order to keep the reader in the dark. I like not knowing where a plot is heading, but you need to at least play fair with the reader and drop little tidbits every now and then. Here, the pacing just ground to a halt as we spent far too much time with spiritual healer Andrew Lightfoot. All his mumbo jumbo about "spiritual planes" and what-not wore thin very quickly. The acknowledgments at the end of the book thank a family for sharing their story about their experiences with a mentally disturbed child and that the best help came from their interactions with a spiritual healer, which I suspect is the reason why we learn far more about that occupation than is actually necessary.

Another irksome element is Alex Wilson, a former detective who now teaches at the Academy. He feels he's getting rusty, so naturally he's allowed to insert himself into the investigation tag along to crime scenes and even question suspects. It's the sort of ploy you'd expect from a crime TV show like "Bones" or "Castle", and doesn't seem genuine. He's also a transparently obvious plot device - as a love interest for D.D. Warren. As for D.D. herself, I'm somewhat perplexed that she's become the central recurring character for Gardner's novels. I quickly got tired of hearing about how horny she was. She's not especially interesting, plucky or cluey, and should not be the driving force for a novel. And the Bobby Dodge cameo was gratuitous and unnecessary - either bring him back into the fold, or move on!

It's hard to know how I feel about "Live To Tell". It's certainly not a patch on her best work, neither is it as truly awful as "The Third Victim" or "Alone". It has an excellent premise, an initially intriguing set-up, but blows it with a choppily-paced midsection, an irritating central detective and that bloody spiritual healer. I certainly can't whole-heartedly recommend it, so it's pretty much a case for somebody checking it out and deciding for themselves.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

"The Crucifix Killer" by Chris Carter

Robert Hunter is a hotshot homicide detective with a knack for solving crimes. Teamed up with rookie partner Carlos Garcia, he finds his most horrifying case coming back to haunt him when a murder victim shows up bearing the mark of the Crucifix Killer. The only problem is that they caught the Crucifix Killer a couple of years ago - he was convicted and executed. The pair must figure out whether this is a copycat or they caught the wrong guy. They must also contend with pimp D-King, who is out for vengeance of his own when he believes his favourite girl Jenny might be one of the killer's latest victims.

It's amazing how many crime thrillers get released these days about detectives tracking down a killer they thought had already been caught, and trying to find out if they're dealing with a copycat or if they arrested the wrong person. "14", reviewed not long ago, had a similar premise. To "The Crucifix Killer"'s credit, it's quickly established that yes, this killer is the real deal, and the wrong man was executed. That doesn't stop it from being a cliched, badly written entry in the genre, however. Frequent crime readers will comfortably predict the identity of the killer and their motive. Carter attempts to divert attention with the subplot involving D-King and his search for Jenny's killer, and throws in a snuff movie subplot as well, but it does little to hide the fact that this is a weak, pedestrian effort. Characterisation is routine. Hunter is apparently something of a genius, having graduated at a young age, but choosing police work because it is a noble profession. Garcia is a newcomer to the homicide division, trying to juggle his job with his marriage. Unfortunately, neither really has much of a personality, although they're likeable enough. Unnecessary padding is another obvious flaw, most noticeably in a chapter devoted to two guys who wake up after a party and discover a snuff movie, in which one of them recognises the victim. They're never heard from or mentioned again, nor their connection to the victim explained. What was the point?

"The Crucifix Killer" isn't the total train-wreck the review suggests. I didn't put it down in absolute disgust the way I did with "Play To Kill" or "Broken". Carter demonstrates some ability in generating suspense, as evidenced by the opening chapters, which are dangled before the reader as a sign of what's to come. He needs to start writing better - improve the dialogue and not flit between past and present tense (the narrative inexplicably turns to present tense when describing or setting up a scene, before diverting back to past tense once the characters start talking). He needs to tighten up the pacing - either remove those unnecessary chapters, characters and subplots, or beef them up and tie them into the main action more convincingly - in the end, "The Crucifix Killer" winds up almost being two separate stories. It might also help to not make your killer and their motive so glaringly obvious.

Yes, the author needs to do a lot of work to deliver a memorable thriller. But there is a small glimmer of promise here.