Sunday, August 21, 2011

"Killer Instinct" by Joseph Finder

Jason Steadman is a sales manager at Entronics, a multi-media software company along the lines of, say, Panavision, who organise contracts to provide their product to an organisation. He's happy doing what he does, but his wife Kate thinks they are falling into a bit of a rut, and wonders why he isn't a little more ambitious. After all, they are supposed to be starting a family.

About the same time as Kate starts pushing him to get up and go, Jason meets a tow truck driver who just happens to be an ex-Special Forces officer. Kurt Semko got a dishonourable discharge, but after helping Jason out, the two strike up a friendship. Jason invites him to take part in a company baseball game, which results in their team finally winning. It soon progresses to Jason helping Kurt get a nice job in security at Entronics.

Kurt believes in repaying favours. So much so that all of sudden Jason finds himself the recipient of extremely good fortune, while others around him fall victim to major bad luck. Jason gets the promotion he is after and his life improves dramatically, but he eventually suspects that Kurt is being not just underhanded - but decidedly ruthless - in ensuring his success. In fact, could Kurt even be committing murder. When Jason tries to put a stop to things, his new best friend becomes his worst enemy.

A solid plot and an engaging lead character help "Killer Instict" deliver the goods. The reader is with Jason Steadman every step of the way, as he tries to navigate his way through a cut-throat corporate world that is out of step with his general nice-guy persona. The suspense begins to build as you wonder just how far Kurt is going to ensure that Jason lands his deals and secures the promotions he is after. Kurt actually comes across as a likeable guy. Who wouldn't want somebody like that in their corner, guiding you to the outcomes you want to achieve? However, Jason isn't too comfortable with some of Kurt's tactics, and his outright horrified when he suspects Kurt has committed murder.

The main problem with "Killer Instinct" is that is eventually reaches a state of static. Another bad thing happens that benefits Jason. And another. And another. Kurt is obviously behind it. This holding pattern is kept in place far too long and the suspense that was previously generated eventually dissipates. There is an okay plot twist at the end, but the climax is underwhelming. This one should have been ratcheting up the tension and surprises, but never quite gets there. Beyond this, a proper explanation as to how Kurt gathers his intel is never adequately provided, nor a tangible motive as to why he goes to such lengths to repay a favour. It's possible there's some corporate-world parable at play here, but it hasn't translated into a fully gripping thriller.

All in all, it's worth the reader's time, if purely for the strong characterisation and initially intriguing plot.

"Heartstopper" by Joy Fielding

Sandy Crosbie is a teacher at a school in Torrance, Florida, a place she moved to with her family shortly before her husband dumped her for the town's resident sexpot. Struggling to raise two teenage children by herself, combined with teaching an English class full of self-absorbed teenagers who couldn't care less about the material, is stretching Sandy to the max. Adding to her worries is the fact that there could be a serial killer operating in the town, as one of her daughter's classmates has already been discovered murdered.

Sheriff John Weber tries to gather up clues without having to resort to calling in the FBI, but there doesn't appear to be any motive to the crime. And with so many town members hiding a variety of secrets, it's hard to sort out what might be relevant.

"Heartstopper" is quite a lengthy novel despite the fact that not a lot really happens. There are long chapters from the point of view of the killer, but these do not illuminate exactly why the killer is doing what they are doing. Further to this, I'm not sure if the identity of the killer was supposed to be a secret or not. We learn about the aunt of one character being dead, and then one of the killer's chapters happens to mention a dead aunt. It results in a novel where you know all along who the killer is, but never know exactly why they are doing what they are doing.

Where the novel does succeed is in exploring the generation gap between adults and teenagers. The adults fail to understand what motivates their kids, and vice versa. It also honestly explores the emotions felt by Sandy about the disintegration of her marriage. While this genre tends towards the female protagonist who can take control of her life and not put up with any crap, Sandy is presented as an otherwise intelligent woman who simply cannot come to grips with the fact her husband no longer finds her "worthy" of love. She does get her moment of triumph, but she at least comes across as a believable, relatable character.

However, I'm supposed to be reading a thriller here. I was not thrilled. My heart did not stop. My eyelids drooped a bit, but that's about it. Strong character development is all well and good when you have an involving storyline to back you up. That is not the case here. There is barely a story to be found. Somebody is kidnapping girls and women and killing them. Their motive is never made properly clear. I had to slog through more than 500 pages to a conclusion that I already saw coming. I need these so-called thrillers to stop wasting my time.

"The Cutting" by James Hayman

Detective Michael McCabe is the head of a Maine police force investigating the murder of a high-school girl, whose body has been discovered with her heart removed. Now another woman is missing, and the belief is that the two cases could be linked. Thanks to his convenient photographic memory (or something similar - the novel insists it's something a little different), Michael believes that there are several unsolved murders out there with the same M.O. and that a serial killer is on the loose.

The investigation soon leads Michael to Dr. Philip Spencer, who heads up an organ transplant team at the hospital. Since the killer seems to display surgical knowledge and precision, there is the possibility that the victims are linked to some sort of black market organ transplant scheme. The doctor insists that isn't possible, but as McCabe's team track down leads, it appears that there are more than a few skeletons in the doctor's closet and a black market organ transplant conspiracy isn't out of the question, nor the possibility that the killer is enjoying a few fringe benefits with the selected victims.

"The Cutting" is another so-called serial killer thriller that is happy to coast along on pre-established genre conventions to generate its so-called suspense. There is absolutely nothing here that you couldn't find elsewhere. For example, the idea of an organ transplant conspiracy has already been done to much better effect in "Harvest" by Tess Gerritsen - and that was written fifteen years ago! Obviously, the crime genre is going to revisit material that has been done before, but that doesn't mean the author can't find some way to shock or surprise the reader. "The Cutting" presents a couple of theories and a couple of suspects and then fails to go anywhere else with the premise. Short chapters from the point of view of the latest kidnapped victim do little to amp up the tension or suspense. We know so little about her, and considerably little time is given to developing her character, so you simply aren't drawn into her plight.

The other huge fault here - and a considerable cause for concern - is the ease in which the author links homosexuality with every conceivable sexual deviation. The idea strongly presented here is that if a guy is gay, it's only a short step to rape, murder and torture - of either gender! Once the killer's identity is revealed, absolutely no motive is given to his propensity for raping and torturing women that are to be harvested for organs. He's bisexual, so obviously he's only one step away from being a sick, vicious killer! Don't worry, I'm not spoiling anything - there is never any question that the killer is male. But every single character in this book who isn't heterosexual is presented as a twisted psychopath.

There is little to recommend "The Cutting". It's unoriginal, homophobic and suspenseless. There is no attempt by the author to mix things up or explore new territory. With so much else out there competing for your attention, this one should be cut from any future reading lists.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

"Ghost Shadow" by Heather Graham

Katie O'Hara runs her own karaoke business in Key West, Florida. She's ready to buy the old town museum, which is the site of Key West's own murder mystery, in which the dead body of Tanya Barnard was discovered. This was ten years ago and nobody was ever arrested for the crime.

Suspicion did fall upon her fiance David Beckett, but he had a solid alibi. Nevertheless, such accusations can never be truly shaken off, and he took off to do what all alpha males in the romantic suspense genre do - join the military and become a wildlife photographer. But he's back now and stopping the sale of the museum, as he believes no good could come of it. He also believes that Tanya's killer is still out there, ready to strike again, and convinces his police detective brother Liam to re-open the cold case.

As for Katie, she has the special ability to see ghosts, and as the body count slowly begins to rise, the ghosts seem to be trying to communicate to her the identify of the murderer. Could it be David, the man she is rapidly falling for?

Of course not! This is romantic suspense genre, remember. The alpha male love interest is the one character you can 100% guarantee will not be guilty. However, as hokey as my plot description makes this book out to be, I actually enjoyed it. God help me, I'm considering getting the other two books in the trilogy. While abundant cliches are present, Graham conjures up a rather appealing atmosphere and back-story for Key West. The mystery is unfolding just as Key West gears up for its annual Fantasy Fest. The town really does come alive, which adds to the story. Graham even has a good handle on the supernatural element. There's no question that ghosts exist or that Katie can see them. Her encounters with various ghosts are even mildly spooky. The murder mystery is fairly feeble - by the very nature of the genre I was able to spot which characters would be getting their own story in the next two books - so that narrowed down the suspect pool quite dramatically. The romance side of things was surprisingly well-handled. The relationship between Katie and David developed believably and both came across as fairly level-headed. I also quite enjoyed the character of Bartholomew, the ghost who watches over Katie. He stole several scenes.

No, it's not a genre-defining piece of work. But it was much better than I expected it to be. I liked the characters, and this is one of the few books I've read in which the locale has just as much personality and presence as the characters. Who would have thought?