Sunday, October 31, 2010

"Sworn To Silence" by Linda Castillo

Police Chief Kate Burkholder is thrust into a murder investigation in which women are showing up brutally murdered, numbers carved into their stomachs. They are identical to murders from sixteen years ago. Kate is plagued by the question posed by about 90% of crime thrillers these days - same killer or a copycat? Kate is inclined to believe the latter, as she shot and killed the murderer after he attacked and raped her when she was a teenager - and still Amish. When she is too slow to call in outside help, she also gets caught up in police and council politics, all while the killer continues on his spree.

There's a lot actually working against "Sworn To Silence", so I'm surprised I didn't hate it. For one, we have the utterly unoriginal and predictable storyline. Then we have the Amish angle (Kate used to be Amish, but left the lifestyle behind after rumspringa). I've read a couple of books with Amish characters, and they tend to be fairly dull, with the author at pains to describe how honest, hard-working and kind they are. Finally, a little research showed that Linda Castillo is usually a romance/suspense writer. Fears of Lisa Jackson-style inanity rose up inside of me. However, "Sworn To Silence" works in spite of itself. Firstly, while a romance does develop between Kate and FBI Special Agent John Tomasetti, it doesn't occur until well into the book, and the two thankfully don't spend too much time pining over each other. Secondly, while the Amish are portrayed as honest, hard-working and kind (yeah, that's why they shun family members who abandon the faith), we're not beaten over the head with it. Lastly, despite an extremely over-familiar plot, with each of the crime genre elements neatly and predictably covered, the pacing is solid and sometimes exciting. These days, I'm happy simply if the book isn't boring. Castillo delivers a police procedural that appears accurate but doesn't get bogged down in the mundane details.

However, it does have negative points. In particular, the whole book is based on Kate's belief that the original killer is dead, as she shot him in self defence. It's mentioned that the killings stopped after her attack, but that's it. Kate and her family never discovered any momentos from the murders, never heard a confession....nothing. No solid, concrete proof that the man she killed was really a serial killer and not an opportunistic rapist. A pretty naive belief for somebody who's SUPPOSED TO BE A POLICE CHIEF!!! Much time is wasted on this highly obvious red herring and it hurts the novel a great deal. Similarly, the identity of the killer is poorly handled. Tomasetti gives a profile and just pages later a character is described as having many of those characteristics. Was it even supposed to be a surprise?

"Sworn To Silence" really shouldn't get a positive review. A stunning lack of originality and a groan-inducingly obvious red herring are not good ingredients for a solid, memorable thriller. But as I said, the real crime for any crime thriller is to be boring. This certainly isn't. It moves quickly and capably and crime readers will enjoy it, even if they can predict every that happens.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"No Way Home" by Peter Spiegelman

Private investigator John March's latest client is Nina Sachs, who wants him to look for her ex-husband, Gregory Danes, who hasn't been heard from in a while. She doesn't want the child support and alimony payments running out. Danes is a rich equity analyst, but troubled times on Wall Street have seen his credibility and career plummet. March's investigation eventually reveals that other people are looking for Danes as well, gradually making his work harder - and more dangerous. He must try and discover if something sinister has happened to Greg, and whether it was related to his family life, or the colleagues he worked with in the last days of his troubled career.

Notice how I used words like "eventually" and "gradually"? That's because this book is in no hurry to get anywhere. It's one of the most boring thrillers I've ever read. 200 pages in and March barely knows more than what he started with. The narrative basically consists of him tracking down anybody who might provide him with a clue, only for that person to respond with something along the lines of "f**k off, I don't want to talk to you". Over and over again. It was repetitive and unexciting. I imagine P.I. work is exactly like this, but it sure doesn't make for enthralling reading.

Another drawback is the description. Sure, you need to set the scene, but this one takes it to absolutely ridiculous proportions. Sometimes, if March has to wait five minutes to speak to somebody, he'll take a walk. We're then treated to minute detail about the street he walks down and what's in the shops he looks in, etc etc. Similarly, anytime he enters an office, every little thing is described, right down to the photos on the desk. Acceptable maybe if they're going to have relevance later, but that's certainly not the case here. The positive that came out of this was that I was able to skip up to two and three pages at a time - without missing a thing.

The slow-moving plot and the wordy writing style also serve to expose John March as a fairly unsympathetic character. He comes across as a self-involved, immature putz. The plot has several diversions involving his interactions with his family, which only serve to slow down an already almost-immobile plot, and paint him as being even more unlikeable. Nobody much likes spending time in his company, and hey - neither does the reader! His romance with neighbour Jane Lu is also a casualty of his badly-drawn character. I couldn't understand why she would put up with such a misery-guts. In the previous book, "Black Maps", there was detail about the murder of John's first wife, but it's only touched upon very lightly here, and I can barely remember a thing about the first book. So it doesn't quite justify him being a childish asshole all the time.

Plot revelations, when they do come, aren't terribly earth-shattering, and aren't enough to make trawling through this bore worth the effort.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

"Harvest" by Tess Gerritsen

Dr. Abby Di Matteo is a surgical student who is on the verge of being accepted into the hospital's elite organ transplant team, courtesy of her lover Dr. Mark Hodell. However, her career hits rocky ground when she teams up with resident Dr. Vivian Chao to ensure that the heart of a car accident victim goes to a dying teenage boy, rather than Nina Voss, the wife of a millionaire. Her attempts at holding onto her job are further jeopardised when Nina becomes the recipient of another healthy heart, and Abby discovers that its procurement wasn't exactly above-board. No traces of the donor's details can be found.

Things only get worse. Nina's husband Victor, furious at Abby over her involvement in the original heart switcheroo, uses his considerable wealth to tie Abby up in law-suits. One of the transplant team members seemingly commits suicide, but a detective finds the death suspicious. As Abby uncovers a conspiracy, attempts to discredit and silence her step up a notch.

Published in 1996, this was Gerritsen's first thriller after many years writing romantic suspense tales. It's no surprise this catapulted her into the big-time, as it's an enjoyable fast-paced read. Poor Abby really does through all seven levels of hell to uncover the truth about the organ harvest conspiracy at Bayside Hospital. Her determination to proceed despite everything that's thrown at her makes her an engaging heroine, one you want to see triumph against adversity. The conspiracy itself it quite intriguing, revealed in bits and pieces. There are some nice action set-pieces as the novel nears its conclusion.

The weaker elements involve the plight of Yakov, a young Russian boy on board a freighter bound for America. The reader can quickly surmise that he and the other youngsters on board are the unwitting donors for those wealthy enough to pay for the organs they want. I found the book pretty much ground to a halt every time the story went back on the boat. I'm guessing Gerritsen wanted to put a human face to the victims of such a conspiracy, but not much interesting ever really happens in these chapters, and maybe I'm a cold-hearted bastard, but I never really found myself caring about what happened to Yakov. He was just too much your stereotypical strong-but-cutesy child. Also, as the book races to its finish, it does leave a few questions unanswered. Why did Elaine disappear - how much did she know about what was going on? Who exactly was Tim Nicholls and what happened to him? Who put the offal in Abby's car? Why were the other transplant members killed? Did they want out? Does Abby ever get cleared and get her job back?

All in all, "Harvest" delivers the goods when it comes to medical conspiracy thrillers. Sure, the chapters with Yakov on the boat could have been trimmed, but otherwise this is an entertaining, action-based thriller with a pace that rarely flags. Nearly fifteen years have passed since "Harvest" was released, and I think Gerritsen is still at the top of her game. One of the best authors in the genre, without doubt.