Saturday, March 31, 2012

"The Shepherd" by Ethan Cross

Francis Ackerman is a vicious, deadly serial killer who has left a trail of bodies in his wake. Ex-cop Marcus Williams gets pulled into his world when he comes across the latest crime scene, which just happens to be that of his neighbour. However, when he calls the Sheriff over to discuss something he has remembered about the scene, he discovers that the Sheriff has an agenda of his own. He's captured Ackerman and plans to deliver his own justice.

Marcus is strongly against this, which means he must be silenced too. In the ensuing fight, Ackerman is able to escape. He continues with his killing ways, whilst Marcus tries to elude a murderous sheriff. Things only get more complicated when Ackerman decides he and Marcus are two sides of the same coin - one good, one evil blah, blah, blah - and decides that their fates must be determined by one final encounter between the two of them. All this, plus the possibility of a government sanctioned vigilante group too!

"The Shepherd" gets off to a decent start, with some suspenseful opening sequences. Events soon spiral downward from there. Having a Sheriff with a posse of his lawmen chasing Marcus down to silence him is the first element that renders this story hopelessly absurd. The second would be the fact that nearly every character here becomes a complete boob whenever they get an opportunity to kill or capture Ackerman. He has more lives than a freaking cat! The person who has Ackerman cornered will hesitate, or bloody not do a thing, giving him the opportunity to attack or get away. This happens about every other chapter. It's infuriating. And Marcus is the worst culprit.

Next we have a serial killer who should seriously learn the art of "Shut The F*** Up". He's not content to slaughter and torture victims and move on his merry way. He must contemplate the nature of evil, why he is the way he is, and just about every yawn-inducing philosophical question you could think of. The author keeps trying to hammer home the idea that there can be no good without evil to fight, that for every hero there is a villian, and for every good crime novel there are about twenty bad ones. Okay, I made up that last point.

There are gratuitous scenes of violence and torture. I don't have a weak stomach, but it felt like a written form of torture-porn, cashing in on the now-faded craze sparked by the "Saw" movies. Characters are thinly developed, even Ackerman himself, despite the fact he never stops analysing himself or talking about himself. And that "final" confrontation he wants with Marcus? There are actually about three. Action descriptions are basic and repetitive, and sequences that should be exciting merely feel boring.

It is all capped off with one of the stupidest, most ridiculous twists I have come across in a crime novel. Yes, when you look back at events it is clear that this is not a twist the author pulled out a hat. It was carefully set up. But it's just so ludicrous! From the final chapters it's clear this is meant to become some sort of franchise. Considering this drivel, I won't be flocking to the store to buy any others.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

"California Girl" by Jefferson Parker

The murder of a beauty queen in Southern California in 1968 becomes the first big case of Detective Nick Becker's career. He and his brothers have continually crossed paths with the victim, Janelle Vonn, and her family, so he takes his duty to find her killer quite seriously.

The book actually opens in the present day, as Nick is approached by his journalist brother Andy Becker, who says that the wrong person was arrested. This is what prompts Nick's journey into the past and his recollection of the investigation. There are also viewpoints from Andy as he inadvertently uncovers clues through his job as a journalist, as well as oldest brother David Becker, who becomes a preacher and tries to pull the community together through his sermons.

"California Girl" won the Edgar Award in 2004 for Outstanding Mystery. My guess is that there were slim pickings that year, as this is one of the dullest books I have ever read. This isn't so much a crime novel as it is an attempt at a sweeping family history and an exploration of how a single crime affects multiple people. Parker does a pretty good job of evoking time and place, but that doesn't make his story any more interesting. To say this moves at a snail's pace is being kind.

I suspect that those who decided this was the most outstanding mystery of 2004 like a crime novel with ambition; one that transcends the genre. Something like Dennis Lehane's "Mystic River". But this is insulting. The mystery here is pathetic. At page 257, our protagonist moans that he's two weeks into his investigation and he has no suspects. That translates to wasting more than two hours of the reader's time because absolutely f*** all has happened. Although it is apparent early on who the culprit is, we still have to trawl along well past 450 pages to the point where Nick and his detective partner Lobdell finally arrest the wrong guy.

This is NOT a mystery. This is barely a crime novel. It should NOT have won any awards reserved for this genre. If I want a family saga that explores a particular time and place in history, I want more than a meandering borefest with gratuitous cameos from Richard Nixon, Timothy Leary and Charles Manson. This book aims at some sort of profundity and completely blows it. Lisa Jackson is beginning to look like a viable alternative again. Yikes.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

"Blood Lies" by Daniel Kalla

Ben Dafoe is an emergency room doctor who winds up the prime suspect in the murder of his ex-fiance and her drug dealer, thanks to blood on the wall at the crime scene, which matches his DNA. Ben knows he was never there, but the only other possibility is his twin brother Aaron. However, Aaron went missing two years ago, presumed dead.

Believing that Aaron must have faked his death, and his somehow involved in the murders, Ben goes on the run in an effort to clear his name. Clues suggest that Aaron was last seen in Vancouver, so that's where Ben heads. He must stay one step ahead of the police while trying to find out who has a motive to not only murder his ex-fiance, but to frame him for it as well.

I got "Blood Lies" from a discount bin at a bookstore and now I'm glad I did. It's quite surprising how satisfying the "cheap" thrillers are compared to the large-format crime paperbacks that get major releases in the bookstores. "Chillwater Cove" comes to mind. This is a solid, old-fashioned fugitive-on-the-run, trying-to-clear-his-name thriller. Plenty of red herrings are thrown out there, lots of potential motives for murder and some dollops of intrigue. Furthermore, while the characterisations are nothing great literature are made of, I really liked a couple of the characters. Ben himself is a selfless, intelligent fellow and I was firmly in his corner from the get-go. His developing relationship with Dr. Jozef Janacek, whose clinic he starts working at in Vancouver, is sincere and engaging and grounds the story even more than Ben's tentative romance with Dr. Alex Lindquist, who is in a troubled marriage. Events played out like a movie in my mind while I read the book, which demonstrates Kalla's ease in creating scenarios without an excess of description. More than a few authors could learn from him!

On the downside, some plot contrivances detracted from the story. Alex conveniently had a brother who looks just like Ben so he could borrow his identity (and which makes their attraction to one another a little creepy). There is an extreme over-reliance on flashbacks. Seriously, there's nearly one every chapter. It was distracting and more than a little amateurish. And the ending was just a little too Murder She Wrote-ish for me. You know, where so-and-so says they knew something all along but wasn't sure and never bothered to tell a soul about it?

These are all minor quibbles. I read "Blood Lies" in one sitting and really enjoyed it. Likeable characters, plenty of intrigue, punchy pacing = much to enjoy.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

"The Survivor" by Sean Slater

Detective Jacob Striker has been called to his daughter Courtney's high school because she has skipped class. He rocks up along with partner Felicia Santos and before they know it, the school becomes the site of chaos as a school shooting erupts. Three guys in hockey masks are gunning down students left, right and centre. Striker manages to take two down, but one - wearing a red mask - manages to escape.

As the investigation into the identities of the two dead killers gets underway, Striker also learns that they were targeting specific students. As he and Felicia try to find links between the students, their enquiries eventually lead them into the underworld of Asian gangs. It becomes a race against time when they realise there is still one more student target out there. Complicating matters is Courtney, who has a frayed relationship with her father, and whose bratty actions will undoubtedly bring her into the line of fire.

If you've never read a crime/action thriller set in Canada, now's your opportunity! However, there isn't anything you'll find amongst these pages to make it stand out amongst a crime thriller set in any other country. "The Survivor" is over 500 pages long and could have done with a little trimming. After a while it simply got dull as Jacob and Felicia went to another location to interview another suspect. Surely the author could have found a way to shorten their eventual arrival at the solution. Events eventually got very repetitious.

Other elements annoyed me. What was the purpose of The Man With The Bamboo Spine again? He showed up, didn't do much and was removed from the narrative in a real who-cares fashion. Why were the names of the shooters kept a mystery? The remaining shooter is referred to as Red Mask throughout the novel. The reader knowing his name would have had no impact on anything nor spoilt anything. Attempts to try and humanise him really bothered me too. He shot and murdered twenty-two kids when only four were targets. Overkill much? Sorry, but I really don't give two shits about the internal torment of an asshole who can gun down twenty-two kids. Shooting up a school just to take out four kids? What a stupid plan. It didn't conceal the links between them any less than had they been murdered separately.

Character-wise, this was a bit of a bust. Courtney was a brat. Yes, her mother died two years ago but it didn't make me warm to her. Dialogue between her and her friend Raine was quite cringe-worthy. The author was trying to hard to capture teen-girl speak. Jacob Striker himself is an arrogant asshole. Yes, his boss Inspector Laroche is a douchebag, but Jacob seems to think the rules don't apply to him and his behaviour towards his boss is nothing less than antagonistic. His conversations with Felicia range from flirty to snappy - he's the man, he's the boss, basically. When he goes into the hospital room of an interviewee that's been shot, he introduces himself as "I'm Detective Jacob Striker from the Vancouver Police Department. I'm the cop that saved you". Wow. Is he for real? It's hard spending 500 pages with a character who thinks the sun shines out his own ass. And as stated previously, I didn't care much about the atrocities suffered by Red Mask as a child. He's a cold-blooded assassin who murders children!

What could have been an exciting thriller turns into just another police procedural with - once again - too much focus on the procedural. A look at Amazon revealed that the author is actually a Vancouver detective himself, so I know it's at least fairly accurate. So what? I wanted it to be exciting and suspenseful as well. It wasn't.

Monday, March 5, 2012

"Hanging Hill" by Mo Hayder

Sally and Zoe Benedict are sisters, but have not spoken for twenty-odd years. Zoe is now a Detective Inspector investigating the brutal rape and murder of sixteen-year-old Lorne Wood. Sally is a single mother working a dead-end job to keep things together after her divorce. When Sally accidentally kills her employer in self-defence, the sisters lives inevitably collide.

If you read the back cover of the book, it's apparent the publishers weren't quite sure how to sell this one. There's mention of Zoe's "crippling secret" that might destroy her. She was a stripper when she was eighteen. Oh My God. Sally is "forced into a criminal world of extreme pornography and illegal drugs". No, she's not. Her employer turns out to be a pornographer, yes, but she does not get involved in his world in any way. Her daughter Millie owes money to a known drug dealer, yes, but it's not for drugs. This is a world in which "teenage girls can go missing". I'm sure it is, but no teenage girls go missing in this book. There's a dead teenager, yes, but no missing ones. The book cover poses the question: "You would die for your child. But would you kill for her?" Ooooh. Sally doesn't kill for her daughter. The death is an accident as a result of self-defence.

Basically, "Hanging Hill" is a soap opera with a murder thrown in to pass it off as a crime novel. Having Zoe investigate the disappearance of Sally's employer is not terribly enthralling because WE ALREADY KNOW WHAT HAPPENED. Maybe the author was going for some sort of dramatic irony through having Zoe investigate her own sister's crime without knowing it. In any case, it wasn't interesting and I began to skim. There is zero suspense here. The murder of Lorne Wood often feels like an afterthought. Sally and her boyfriend's escapades in covering up the death of her employer feel more like an episode of "Melrose Place".

Of course, Hayder has a legacy - or reputation, rather - to live up to. "Birdman" had a murderer sowing live birds into the chests of dead women so that it would sound like a heartbeat when he had sex with the body. "The Treatment" had a killer who was terrified of lactating women and would try to force fathers to rape their own sons. "Pig Island" had a woman anally raping (with her finger) a girl with a tail. When you think about it, it's kind of hard to top that. Perhaps why her novels are getting more and more disappointing as they go along. Just to show she can still be nasty if she wants to, Hayder throws in a gratuitous rape scene. Events could have still gotten to where they were meant to without that scene happening.

There's a mildly effective twist at the end - to leave you "hanging" as it were. It's appropriate that a cheap, shoddy, rambling pile of junk like this should end with such a cheap tactic. Hayder has scratched herself off my reading list with this rubbish.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

"Blood Vines" by Erica Spindler

Alex Clarkson returns to Sonoma Valley, home of several wine estates, after the body of a mummified baby is uncovered. It would appear the baby is her half-brother, who went missing when she was just five. As it turns out, Alex had a whole family back then when her mother was married to Harlan Sommer. However, something made her mother flee the area and take Alex with her, doing everything in her power to make sure that Alex forgot that time in her life.

Her reunion with the family she never knew is the trigger for some of her own disturbing memories to surface. Did she witness something horrible the night her half-brother disappeared? Other strange things start to happen - a mutilated baby doll is found hanging from a tree, a dead lamb is left in Alex's apartment. Then people start to die. What secret are the townspeople hiding? What made her mother flee all those years ago? The only two people Alex can turn to for help are her ex-husband Tim and Daniel Reed, the police detective on the case. And a love triangle is the last thing she needs...

There's a decent mystery wrapped up somewhere in "Blood Vines", but it gets lost amongst a clutter of thinly developed characters and a jumble of half-baked potential motives. By the end, I wasn't able to concretely pinpoint down who did what to whom and why. The book is a good read - getting to the end is an enjoyable experience, as was trying to figure out the mystery. However, like I said, there's just too many characters here and I would sometimes forget how each person was connected.

Alex herself isn't the greatest heroine to grace a thriller. I lost count of the number of times she would throw herself at either Tim or Daniel and bury her head in their chest whenever she was afraid, stressed, upset or horny. Which was most of the time. I also didn't understand why the hell she just didn't get the hell out of dodge. Simply repeating the sentence "I'm not going to be chased away!" isn't really enough. Honey, if you let yourself get chased away, all the bad stuff stops. Do you get that? Let the police do their work. Of course, if she split for home there wouldn't be a novel, but surely there was some extenuating circumstance the author could have devised to force Alex to stay in town? Her melodramatic personality and her stubborn stupidity often made me feel like grabbing a vine and wrapping it around her neck.

There are worse thrillers out there. "Blood Vines" grabbed my interest and kept me in its thrall until the end. But the true promise shown with "Last Known Victim" appears to be slipping away.

"Down The Darkest Road" by Tami Hoag

The third book in what is called the "Oak Knoll" series moves events forward to 1990 and puts the focus on Lauren Lawton, who has moved to the town with her daughter Leah. Four years ago they were rocked by the disappearance of the other daughter Leslie when she was sixteen. Lauren and the police were convinced she was kidnapped, raped and murdered by Roland Ballencoa, but they didn't have a single shred of evidence against him. The tragedy eventually led to Lauren's husband taking his own life and the crime never being solved.

However, it would appear that Roland Ballencoa is now living in Oak Knoll as well and is up to his old tricks - including breaking into houses and soiling women's underwear. Lauren goes straight to the police, including detective Tony Mendez, to inform them of what Roland is capable of. She is especially worried, as Leah is now the same age as Leslie was when she disappeared. When it appears that Roland is communicating with Lauren and trying to scare her, Mendez and the other detectives must try and stop Ballencoa, despite still having zero evidence against him.

The problem any writer faces when dealing with a family torn apart by murder and the agaony of not knowing what actually happened is striking a balance between delivering a solid thriller while also making the characters believable and sympathetic. However, Hoag does not seem up to the task of combining the two. Lauren and Leah are - understandably - extremely bound up in their own pain over the traumatic experiences they've gone through. Unfortunately, they just keep going on and on about it. And on some more. I grew tired of the various different ways Hoag would explain how Leah or Lauren were in excruciating emotional pain. Lauren is unbalanced and drinks too much. Leah likes to cut herself. Every other chapter would bang on about it. I understand trying to make the characters realistic, but it was too much! Come on, I'm supposed to be reading a thriller here too!

There was some suspense, but the story was thin. There was no attempt to cast doubt on Ballancoa's guilt or Lauren's state of mind. One plot twist was extremely obvious. The other plot twist made Lauren appear stupid, reckless and manipulative. Basically, Lauren is the cause of most of her own problems and safety threats, and that minimised a great deal of sympathy towards her. The book offers a tense, exciting climax, but the road getting there is bumpy, drab and depressing.

"Secrets To The Grave" by Tami Hoag

In the follow-up to "Deeper Than The Dead", Anne Leone (now married to FBI profiler Vince Leone) is called upon to help four-year-old Haley Fordham, who witnessed the murder of her artist mother Marisa, and was nearly killed herself. She is obviously traumatised and can't identify the killer. Now working as a child advocate instead of a teacher, Anne takes the little girl into her own home.

The police force search for clues, but their best witness Gina Kemmer - Marisa's best friend - can't be contacted. That's because she's been shot and left for dead at the bottom of the well, conveniently unable to reveal any vital information. That leaves them with wealthy Milo Bordain, who funded Marisa's lifestyle and saw Marisa and Haley as her own sort of subtitute family. She's been sent a gruesome gift in the mail and it would appear she is next on the list. Meanwhile, Anne's attempts to draw the killer's identity out of Haley brings her under increasing threat herself.

"Deeper Than The Dead" was good enough that I immediately grabbed this second installment. And while it easily maintains interest throughout, it is a much lesser effort than its predecessor. At the end of the day, there simply isn't much plot. The novel sits in a holding pattern while the police search for clues and Gina attempts to save herself from a dirty death at the bottom of a well. This is typical murder-of-the-week territory, little different from any crime TV show you might see. It's padded out with a highly unnecessary subplot involving psychotic little Dennis Farman, who stabbed a classmate in the previous novel. He's institutionalised now and Anne continues to visit him. His eventual escape and attack on Anne contributes nothing to....well, nothing. Everything gets wrapped up nice and easy at the end, with a rush of exposition to explain why things panned out the way they did. If Hoag were a better writer, bits and pieces of this truth could have been dropped througout the novel, and lessened the dragging pace. On top of all this, it STILL doesn't feel like this is taking place in 1986. The only real indication this is set in the past is through random statements dropped by various law enforcement personnel about how technologies will "soon" be available.

"Secrets To The Grave" isn't a total waste of time. It has the odd suspenseful moment here and there. But there's a curious lack of urgency to the proceedings, too many red herrings but with too few suspects to justify it, and a plot that tries to keep too much hidden, resulting in boredom rather than intrigue. Cut about fifty per cent of the extraneous material and you might have something to work with.