Tuesday, November 23, 2010

"The Devil's Garden" by Richard Montanari

Michael Roman is a rising star in District Attorney's office, with an amazing win rate. His personal life is also going swimmingly, with beautiful wife Abby and four-year-old adopted daughters Charlotte and Emily. However, his life is about to thrown upside-down, because his daughters' natural father just happens to be Aleksander Savisaar, a survivor of the Chechyan Army and all-round psycho. Michael's methods to adopt his daughters wasn't entirely above-board and now Savisaar is back to claim what is his.

The plot here reminded me a lot of a movie I saw called "The Tie That Binds", in which Keith Carradine and Daryl Hannah play a psychotic couple who terrorise the nice middle-class couple who adopted their daughter, after social services took her away. It was a typical stranger-from-hell thriller from the mid-90s, which saw such entries as "Single White Female", "The Hand That Rocks The Cradle", "Unlawful Entry" and many others. What made those movies - and many of their ilk - mostly effective was that the threat came from a person who seemed to be ordinary. Police officer, roommate, nanny - all people we would normally assume we can place our trust in. In "The Devil's Garden", Savisaar is portrayed as an intelligent, ruthlessly cunning and highly efficient killing machine. He makes himself a known threat right from the get-go. There's no dramatic irony as he works his way in from the inside (the psycho nanny from "The Hand That Rocks The Cradle" could teach him a thing or two), he simply executes his plan, even utilising outside help (never a good idea).

And that's where this one falls apart. Despite being repeatedly told that Savisaar is efficient and deadly, we're never shown. If he's so smart, why does he bring people into his plan when he already seems to know it will lead to further clean-up down the track? If he's so smart, how can he obtain an illegal passport for himself so easily, yet has to do it the legal way when it comes time to get passports for his daughters? If he's so smart, why does he attack and injure police officers in plain view of hundreds of witnesses? It doesn't add up.

Then we have a bizarre supernatural-lite aspect involving the twins - when they were born, they were originally a set of three, but one of them was stillborn. They like to do everything in threes. They always pick three lollies at the supermarket. They always have a third chair at their tea party table. Similarly, they seem to know their father is coming for them - telling Michael "he's coming" in Estonian, despite never learning the language. They're mysteriously drawn to Estonian myths in the public library and hum strange foreign tunes. Savisaar believes he is "deathless", as per a popular Estonian myth, but these metaphysical ideas are never believably elaborated upon or properly explored. Is this a thriller about a psycho ex-soldier on a mission to get his kids back, or a supernatural allegory of some kind?

Finally, there's the dreaded cop-on-the-case subplot. Plenty of chapters get dedicated to Detective Desiree Powell tracking Savisaar's crime spree - she's continually playing catch-up on a series of events the reader is already fully aware of. Powell could be removed from the proceedings entirely and not affect anything. It smacks of a cheap way to pad out a plot that doesn't really have much going for it to begin with.

With too many plot inconsistencies, undeveloped, underdeveloped and blatantly non-developed ideas, and pointless extraneous material, this garden could have done with a lot more watering and more than a little pruning. Seeds are seemingly planted for a sequel, though I doubt there will be many digging around for it. Chuck this one in the recycling bin with the weeds.

There, I'm done with the gardening metaphors.

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