Wednesday, March 9, 2011

"Chillwater Cove" by Thomas Lakeman

Peggy Weaver is an FBI agent still haunted by an incident when she was ten years old, in which her best friend Samantha was kidnapped by a child sex predator. Peggy managed to get away because she ran for her life While Samantha was eventually returned, it was clear she had suffered greatly, and wouldn't share her experiences with anybody. It's twenty-five years later when Peggy discovers horrifying pictures of Samantha from the time she was abducted, during the course of another investigation. When she learns that Samantha - now married with a child - has received the same set of pictures, Peggy returns to her hometown to discover the truth.

Her return opens up a can of worms. Her father is the chief of police, and they've had a rocky relationship over the years. When Samantha is once again abducted, Peggy's presence in the investigation causes further friction with her father. While it is almost certain that Samantha is once again in the clutches of her original abductor, several other factors complicate the issue. Samantha's rich-boy husband is keeping secrets and hiding facts from the authorities. Samantha's book about the Melungeons, a race of people descended from slaves and who live in the mountains, seems to have made a lot of people uncomfortable, and appears inextricably tied in with current events. On top of that, it's apparent Peggy's own father has secrets to hide.

"Chillwater Cove" is the sort of book that restores your faith that every now and then, a thriller can come along that just completely blows you away. This is one is tightly-plotted, twisty, fast-paced, action-packed, suspenseful and scary, with believable three-dimensional characters, complex relationships and snappy, witty dialogue. I don't think anything you would find within the pages of this novel could be called new or inventive, but then not a lot in this genre is. However, what you will get is a novel where the non-crime, non-action elements are just as gripping as the main narrative. The relationship between Peggy and her father Russell is at the core of the story and it rings true from start to finish. Through their interactions, you understand how Peggy came to be the person she is and how his presence continues to influence her actions. Russell is a character you really want to hate, but is written so well that his unlikeable characteristics actually contribute to the story and the father-daughter conflict. The relationship between Peggy and her colleague-cum-former-fiance Mike Yeager is also explored, and never at the expense of the story. In fact, this is one of those rare occasions where more focus on that relationship would not have hurt the main plot. Mike Yeager is not just some love interest - there isn't even a sex scene! How often do you see that? Even secondary characters get terrific personality arcs. For example, Officer Ripley (I'm not sure we even learn his first name) experiences huge personal growth as the story progresses. It's this sort of attention to detail that draws you into the story and has you caring about everybody involved.

Plot-wise, there are several different strands running concurrently, each contributing to the book as a whole. Since Samantha's original abduction and her current abduction are part of a much larger picture, this leads to numerous interesting plot twists as the story nears its conclusions. Characters are revealed to have varying degrees of motivation. Characters thought to have little bearing on the plot become much more important later on down the track. My only minor quibble would be that the Melungeons too often engage in that hokey Native American Spirit-Speak, i.e. "you're surrounded by men made of lies, Weaver's daughter" etc. They seem civilized enough - would they really talk like that? But it's not enough to really take anything away from the effectiveness of everything else.

Maybe it was the fact I've read so many so-so crime novels lately. Maybe it was the fact I bought this for $5 from a discount newsagency and didn't have high expectations. But I think "Chillwater Cove" leaves many full-priced novels by popular, established authors well in the dust. It's one of the best books I've read in ages and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

"Three Weeks To Say Goodbye" by C.J. Box

Jack and Melissa McGuane are the parents of adopted nine-month-old baby Angelina, since they are unable to have children of their own. However, an unlikely legal snafu has occurred in that the birth father - a snotty over-privileged 18 year old called Garrett - never signed away his rights. Conveniently, his father is the powerful Judge John Moreland, and there's no question of who will get custody. The title refers to the amount of time Jack and Melissa have before handing over the baby, and to find out why the Judge and his son want to get hold of Angelina so desperately, since it's clear that Garrett has no interest in looking after her. They soon find they're willing to go to any lengths to hold on to their child.

The bond that exists between the parents and their daughter is the glue that holds together this otherwise ridiculous thriller. Box seems to be aiming for the same sort of territory as Harlan Coben and Linwood Barclay, in which ordinary people go to extraordinary lengths to defend their family and loved ones. However, he seems to lose grip of what would really make for a tense and exciting story and instead lets the narrative veer off into all sorts of bizarre and unlikely scenarios. One of the more intriguing elements involves Garrett basically knowing he has the parents by the balls - they're willing to do anything in the hope he might sign away his parental rights. Garrett is portrayed as a sociopath, and it's not clear why he doesn't exploit this situation to its full advantage. After some juvenile pranking and one nasty act, he pretty much disappears from the plot. A really gripping thriller could have been fashioned from the vise he has Jack and Melissa trapped in. Instead, the writer seems more interested in exploring the moral consequences of good people being forced to do bad things. This is all well and good, but the situations the characters find themselves in to bring them to that point of questioning their actions are so ludicrous that it all becomes rather moot. For example, the sequence in which Jack, Melissa and their detective friend Cody Hoyt call upon Cody's crazy uncle Jeter to "scare" Garrett into signing the papers results in a bar shoot-out that leaves several dead, but has no impact on the plot other than for Jack to question his morals over standing by and watching it go down.

The themes of grief and personal loss are also muddied by the ending in which Melissa is left sedated at home while Jack and Cody gather up the "guys" for some justified vengeance. Rather than using the mountain of evidence they have which would easily put everybody away, it instead becomes a macho gung-ho mission in which Jack can further examine his slide into moral questionability as he shoots and kills a bad guy - simply for that purpose! Putting the focus on the antagonistic relationship between Jack, Melissa and Garrett could have explored moral choices in the same way - what would they be willing to do to both keep a sociopath happy and keep their baby? Instead, we get a convoluted conspiracy mystery filled with non-sensical events and actions (why does Jack keep calling the judge and giving away his game plan?), capped off with a suspenseless, underwhelming shoot-out.

C.J. Box is a good writer in that he creates believable, likeable characters that quickly get you on side. He shows skill in being able to manipulate the reader's emotions. But the situations he creates to do this go too far beyond the realm of credibility and frequently don't make any sense. Which is a pity, since the premise of this one showed so much promise.