Tuesday, April 12, 2011

"The Missing" by Jane Casey

Sarah Finch is a teacher haunted by the disappearance of her brother Charlie some sixteen years ago. No trace of him was ever found. The event had a drastic effect on her family, with her father eventually moving out and her mother refusing to move on with her life, to the point where her daughter stopped existing for her. Nevertheless, Sarah continues to live with her selfish, ungrateful alcholic mother in a state of suspended misery.

When her twelve-year-old student Jenny Shepherd goes missing, Sarah is the one who discovers the body. Chief Inspector Vickers and Detective Sergeant Andy Blake are at first grateful for her help in the investigation, but as she continually inserts herself into the proceedings, they begin to get suspicious. As for Sarah, she gets the feeling she is being watched. She has an over-eager colleague romantically pursuing her, and a pesky reporter close to uncovering her history. Her romance with Blake further complicates matters.

An okay mystery is wrapped up in this overlong tale. I quickly found myself tiring of Sarah's character. She's another one of those timid, supposedly dowdy, young women completely unaware that all the men around her are completely enamoured with her, and that she is actually a bit of a bombshell. Please. Her devotion to her (frankly) selfish bitch of a mother is explored and explained late in the novel, but it hardly justifies slogging through the constant misery her mother puts her through. Flashbacks to the family's life after the disappearance are effective at first, but soon grow tiresome. Basically, Casey makes the point that the disappearance has had a devastating impact on the family and then just keeps on drawing and drawing it out.

Character actions and motivations are also a bit iffy. The romance between Sarah and Blake in particular is handled in a very cliched manner. Sarah's completely out of left field decision to head over to his house and sleep with him is totally out of character and pretty laughable. It seems to be there for the express purpose of causing tension down the track, not because it was the natural progression of their relationship. And the behaviour of Geoff, her colleague, is clearly stalker-ish and bordering on sexual harrassment, yet she just grins and bears it. As mentioned before, her mother is painted as such a self-absorbed, bitter misery-guts, it's never really clear why Sarah also puts up with this, even despite the last-minute revelation regarding their relationship.

It all wraps up in an okay showdown with the real killer, but the revelation of their identity is pretty arbitrary. "The Missing" aims to be a psychological thriller more than a crime novel, and the lack of reliance on forensic procedure is refreshing, but for me it didn't quite strike home. The mystery was too thin and the characters too hard to relate to.

"Never Say Die" by Tess Gerritsen

Willy Maitland wants to find answers regarding the apparent death of her father twenty years ago. He was reknowned pilot "Wild Bill" Maitland, whose plane crashed in the jungles of Vietnam. However, Willy isn't entirely convinced that he is really dead, and has promised her dying mother she will uncover the truth. She is forced to rely upon the help of mercenary Guy Barnard, who has his own reasons for wanting to find out the truth.

As Willy becomes subject to threats on her life, and the people they interview wind up dead, the two soon realise that there are people out there who want the truth behind the plane crash to remain a secret.

Even going all the way back to 1992, when this romantic thriller by Gerritsen was first released, it was clear that Gerritsen had more talent than her romance novelist counterparts. Sure, the usual cliches of Willy and Guy finding each other "damnably" attractive are present, as are the insecurities both have over what might happen if they gave in to their desires, but Gerritsen also has a sure grip on plotting and pacing. She is able to set the scene in Vietnam quite nicely without going overboard in her descriptions, providing a nice, light travelogue. There is plenty of action as Willy avoids numerous attempts on her life, and even a little genuine intrigue as to the mystery behind the plane crash. It all builds to a pretty decent climax in the jungles of Vietnam. Don't be mistaken - this is strictly romantic suspense fodder, but it comes in at the top end of the scale, and it's not hard to see why Gerritsen went on to much bigger, better things.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

"Die For You" by Lisa Unger

Isabel Raines believes she has a marriage that is pretty close to perfect. Sure, there have been rough patches along the way, including a miscarriage and infidelity, but all in all things are pretty rosy. Until Marcus Raines simply doesn't return home. Until his office is stormed by a fake FBI team who tear the place up, conk Isabel over the head and take off. Until she discovers that she never really knew her husband at all - he has cleared out their bank accounts and is seemingly up to his head in all sorts of nefarious business. Seemingly driven more by ego than common sense, Isabel shifts heaven and earth to find out WHY this has happened to HER? Why why why? Oh yeah, and one of the cops investigating Marcus is having marriage woes. And Isabel's sister Linda is having an affair with an art critic. And both Isabel and Linda remain haunted by the suicide of their father when they were children.

There's an okay if conventional and unoriginal thriller buried here somewhere amongst the internal musings frequented upon by Isabel and Linda regarding the suicide of their father. Sure, it all sounds psychologically insightful and perhaps provides a reason why as adults they're such absolute numbskulls, but it really does get to be a bit much. If Unger wants to explore the damage done to the psyche when a child loses a parent through an act such as suicide, why is she doing it within the context of a thriller in which a woman eventually globetrots to Prague to track down her treacherous husband? If she wants to explore what drives a successful, happy wife and mother to embark on a sexual extra-marital affair, why is she doing it in a book about that woman's sister embarking on a quest for truth and justice? Linda's affair has nothing to do with Isabel's betrayal at the hands of her husband nor her search for answers. All it really does it take up space and paint her as a selfish whore repeatedly running the risk of needlessly destroying her family.

The fact is, Unger's character development is extremely well-crafted and believable. The characters and their actions make sense in regards to what they have been through. Unfortunately, their actions are constantly bone-headed and stupid. Isabel may be a well-developed character, but I didn't particularly like her. Nothing else really mattered to her except finding out WHY she was betrayed. Why her? How dare Marcus?!? She seems to believe she's far more well-equipped to find answers than the police or anybody else and frequently puts herself into near-suicidal situations, while also bringing danger and suspicion to her otherwise innocent extended family. She's the most egotistical, whining, moronic douche to be portrayed by the author as some sort of strong, moral heroine. Actually, I seem to be saying that a lot about female protagonists, and it makes me sound bad, but seriously....is it that hard to create a female character with a strong, steady head on her shoulders who isn't prone to endless introspection, ridiculous choices and self-entitled whining? Just asking.

The other annoying trait is having Isabel be an author. We get lots of musings about what the author does, what they see, what they capture, their role, ad nauseum. It makes the author seem highly self-aware and displays an off-putting sense of self-importance. Lisa, honey, you're writing a mass-market paperback about a woman chasing her husband across the world to Prague to find out why he betrayed you and cleared out your bank accounts. If you want to write literature, drop the ridiculous globe-trotting and the conspiracies and sign up with a smaller publishing company and produce books with poetic, meaningful titles that people in turtleneck sweaters read while drinking some hard-to-pronounce latte at a bohemian coffee shop. "Die For You" is one-third standard betrayed-woman yarn, and two thirds psychological and emotional turmoil. Decide for yourself which interests you more.