Tuesday, February 21, 2012

"Deeper Than The Dead" by Tami Hoag

Set in 1985 before the advent of DNA and advancements in the solving of crimes, Oak Knoll is a quiet community rocked by the vicious murder of one woman and the kidnapping of another. The victims have their eyes and mouths glued shut and their eardrums pierced, which results in the killer being dubbed the "See No Evil" killer. Fifth grade teacher Anne Navarre is drawn into the mystery due to the fact that four of her students discovered the body. Tony Mendez is the detective on the case, and he calls in Vince Leone, one of the pioneers of serial killer profiling, a skill still in its infancy and not internationally recognised the way it is now. There is, of course, an immediate spark between Anne and Vince.

Anne begins to learn more and more about the family lives of the four students who witnessed the crime. All are hiding secrets and one of the fathers could possibly be the killer Mendez and Leone are hunting. Not good, considering one of them is also a detective himself.

There's no denying "Deeper Than The Dead" is a compelling thriller. It was the sort of book that had me reading another chapter during any spare moment I had. I finished it quite quickly. Despite its length, it is decently paced, and appropriately grim and disturbing. I would definitely recommend reading it. However, there was a lot about the novel that bothered me.

Setting the story in 1985 was something that appealed to me, as Hoag could not fall back on that same old standby most thriller writers do these days, in which chapters and chapters go by while detectives wait around for lab results. There barely were any crime labs back when this story was set, which forces Hoag to keep the plot moving. Unfortunately, it never really felt like it was actually taking place in 1985. A few pop culture references here and there, some brief descriptions of clothing - it just didn't evoke the proper atmosphere. For all I knew, this could still have been going down in 2009/2010 (when the book was written/published). Nevertheless, like I said, this tactic essentially keeps Hoag on her toes, finding other ways to keep the plot moving along.

Unfortunately, one of the ways she does this is to cram too many psychos into the same book. Not only do we have our serial killer, we have 12-year-old psycho Dennis Farman, son of detective Frank Farman, aforementioned possible suspect in the murders. He's exhibiting all the hallmarks of growing up to be a sexual sadist. On top of this, there is a junkyard owner who is a suspected pedophile and child murderer. He's presented as a major red herring, even though both the characters and reader alike know he's not the killer the police are after. Adding insult to injury, this subplot is abruptly dropped not long after it is introduced. What was the point of it all again?

Another niggling point is Hoag's representation of gay characters. Not as offensive as, say, James Heymann's "The Cutting", but she seems to think all gay people are highly effeminate and call everybody "honey". This representation has already cropped up in previous novels such as "Dark Horse, "The Alibi Man" and "Dust To Dust". Only a minor quibble, however.

Yes, I've picked the novel apart a fair bit, but that doesn't mean I didn't enjoy it. I was totally captivated from start to finish, in fact. As soon as I finished this one, I grabbed "Secrets To The Grave" and started reading that. I wanted to find out what happened next. I want to see the new directions the characters might be taken. Signs of a good novel. Maybe even a great novel? The third entry in the series has just been released to stores, and I imagine that will be high up on my reading list too.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

"Catch Me" by Lisa Gardner

At the scene of a crime involving a murdered pedophile, Detective D.D. Warren encounters Charlie Grant, who has the most unusual request. Two of her best friends from school have each been murdered on January 21, a year apart. Charlie is convinced that she is next, and January 21 is only a few days away. She wants D.D. to investigate her murder once it happens and solve the mystery once and for all. In the meantime, she has been studying self-defence and target practice in the hope that she can put up one hell of a fight when the time comes.

D.D. isn't sure that she can trust Charlie. The woman has huge gaps in her memory as a result of blocking out most of her childhood as the victim of a mother with Munchausen By Proxy syndrome. She also works as a police dispatcher, which just happens to give her access to the details of criminals - maybe including all these pedophiles turning up dead? Both women must dig into the past to find out what connects the murders of Charlie's friends and the deaths of the pedophiles before January 21 rolls around.

After the disappointments of "Live To Tell" and "Love You More", "Catch Me" is a real return to form for Lisa Gardner. It's a well-written, tightly plotted thriller with several surprises up its sleeve. The character of D.D. Warren is not nearly as irritating and abrasive as she has been in previous novels, and actually seems to uncover the clues, instead of playing catch-up like she did in previous novels. Despite this change in personality, I'm still hoping this will be the last of her presence in Gardner's novels. The character has gone as far as she can go, and has never been the ideal linking element for Gardner's novels.

The main fault in "Love You More" was the fact that a secondary character held all the cards, with the reader knowing more than D.D. at every step. Here, that has thankfully been remedied, and I was happily in the dark for much of the novel. And unlike "Live To Tell", which just kind of sat there and went nowhere in an attempt to hide the plot twists, "Catch Me" quickly moves from one plot surprise to the next. I was drawn in by the character of Charlie, particularly her relationship with a stray dog called Tulip. Mushy perhaps, but it was endearing and made the character likeable.

A small complaint would be the inclusion of characters from all of Gardner's previous novels. They provided little to the progression of the novel, and exchanges with most of them boiled down to nothing more than conversations about rearing children. I don't mind finding out where characters are at after their stories have been told, but here it grew tiresome and repetitive. A couple of times I kept saying to myself: "Get on with it already!" Luckily, it doesn't take up too much plot space and I was back in a fast-paced, exciting thriller.

"Catch Me" is a great read, one I finished in a single sitting. It may only be February, but this one is already on the short-list for one of the best reads of the year (unless this year heralds a flood of great thrillers). Gardner has once again cemented herself as one of my must-buy authors. Highly recommended.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

"The Marchand Sisters: In The Dark" by Judith Arnold

Julie Sullivan works at the Marchand Hotel, a comfortable life after her early years as a fashion model when she was a teen. Back then, her testimony put a model agency owner in prison for exploiting his young employees and supplying them with drugs. This man, Glenn Parry, swore to get revenge. Mac Jensen has been hired by Julie's sister Marcie to protect her, as Glenn Parry is finally out of jail. He's masquerading as the hotel's head of security in order to fulfil his duties. There are instant sparks between Mac and Julie, but he must hide his true identity while he tries to figure out who is sending her threatening e-mails. Glenn Parry seems the likely party - or is he?

This is apparently part one in a twelve-part series involving the people who run the Marchand Hotel (not just the Marchand sisters). It's a fairly plotless piece of romantic suspense drivel, though not as awful as it could have been. The plot never goes beyond the threatening e-mails Julie is receiving, so the story is not likely to tax your brain too much. There is some intrigue regarding somebody potentially trying to sabotage the hotel, as well as some missing transferred funds attributed to the Marchands' late father, but I'm assuming those will be explored in later novels, as no explanations are provided here for those story strands. I don't know if I'm intrigued enough to hunt down the eleven (11!!!) other books in the series, but if you're after a book you can read, not get too aggravated by, and then forget once it's over, this one fits the bill.

"Already Gone" by John Rector

Jake Reese has overcome a violent, troubled youth. He is now a published author, with a university teaching post and a new wife in Diane, the love of his life. When he is attacked by two thugs who cut off his ring finger, he wonders whether something from his past has come back to haunt him. When Diane goes missing - and then turns up dead in a suspicious car accident - Jake must try to figure out what is going on. Against advice from others, he gets back in touch with Gabby, the man who raised him after his father went to jail. Gabby doesn't always operate on the right side of the law, and his involvement could make things even more complicated.

For most of its duration, "Already Gone" is a punchy, fast-paced thriller with plenty of intrigue and unforseen plot twists. The character of Jake is likeable and it is easy to get behind him when things go sour. However, it begins to get a little too convoluted for its own good, and it's eventually confusing over who did what to whom and who wanted the other dead. The motive behind the madness is also quite disappointing; I guess I was expecting something a little more startling and original, considering how strong the rest of the book was.

In fact, by the end of the proceedings, this one bears a striking similarity to "Never Look Away" by Linwood Barclay. Both involve a wife who suddenly goes missing. Later events and motives are also quite similar. If you've read "Never Look Away", by no means assume you shouldn't pick this one up as well, but be warned there's a definite sense of deja vu hovering over things here. I believe I found "Never Look Away" lacked the twists and thrills of Barclay's other novels, so if you haven't read it, this might be the better alternative, as "Already Gone" did genuinely suck me in and I read it very quickly.

My only other beef - a minor one - is how novels in this genre always seem to involve the protagonist having a close friend from the wrong side of the tracks who can operate outside the law. It's a convenient plot tactic here, since the character of Gabby manages to capture the two thugs who attacked Jake without us being told how he managed to even find them in the first place. What did he do differently that Jake couldn't have done? It's a little annoying.

Otherwise, "Already Gone" marks an effort from an author I'm looking forward to reading more from.

Monday, February 6, 2012

"The Burning" by Jane Casey

DC Maeve Kerrigan is part of the task force tracking down a serial killer dubbed "The Burning Man", who likes to viciously beat his victims before setting them on fire. The fifth victim is Rebecca Howarth - or is she? There's enough difference between the manner of Rebecca's death and those of the other victims that Maeve is allowed to dig into Rebecca's life to find out who may have wanted her dead, and tried to make it look like The Burning Man did it.

Intercut with Maeve's investigation is the viewpoint of Louise North, Rebecca's best friend, who is always on hand to provide clues and steer the direction of the murder enquiry, but who seems to have a lot to hide herself.

It's hard to discount "The Burning" if only because it is very well-written and the character development is sharp and believable. The characters and their relationships are well-defined and draw you into the story. Which is a good thing considering this is otherwise an overlong and very feeble mystery. Sorry, but it was entirely obvious from the get-go who killed Rebecca. You have to wade through quite a lot just to find out "how" and "why". Since it is made rather clear that The Burning Man didn't kill Rebecca, it renders that part of the narrative obsolete, yet Casey still continues to devote a fair bit of time to it. Why am I supposed to be invested in a plotline that will have no impact on who killed Rebecca or why they did it? Casey should have minimised the presence of The Burning Man investigation and focused primarily on making it a bit harder to figure out who killed Rebecca. Then again - was it supposed to be a mystery? Was I simply supposed to enjoy the rich prose and the psychological probing of a damaged mind?

Nope, that doesn't cut it with me. While I wouldn't call the book "predictable" there certainly weren't any surprises. I need a little more than good writing and character development to justify a book that clocks in at nearly 500 pages. Plot twists. Suspense. That would be a good place to start. Nevertheless, Maeve Kerrigan is a surprisingly appealing heroine, coming off strong and not too stupid. She pops up again in Jane Casey's next novel "The Reckoning" apparently, and Casey has enough talent for me to hope that she might put out something really special.