Monday, April 30, 2012

"Don't Talk To Strangers" by Bethany Campbell

A serial killer is using the Internet to seduce, stalk and murder young women. He has several profiles in the on-line community known as Omega Moon. He's so far gone undetected, until he murders a young woman named Gretchen. One of Gretchen's friends - Edmon Welkin - has noticed she has seemingly disappeared under eerily similar circumstances to another woman he knew on-line. When the police don't take him seriously, he consults private investigator Hayden Ivanovich.

Through Hayden, two college students - mature-age Carrie Blue (also a former policewoman) and immature, insecure Brooke Tharpe - are recruited to go on-line with false identities in an attempt to draw the killer out. Carrie herself is unprepared for just how twisted on-line communities can be. It's a race against time to stop the killer (whose name is Jon Rosmer - don't worry, I'm not spoiling anything) as he has already set his sights on Lynette Pollson, a facially-scarred woman.

It was a little difficult getting into "Don't Talk To Strangers". This was mainly due to the characterisations. I couldn't really warm to any of them. They're not unlikeable per se, but nobody jumped off the page to grab my interest or sympathy. Basically, everybody had boulder-sized chips on their shoulders and it grew a little tiresome. The set-up is also a bitiffy. A private investigator drawing civilians into a job that could prove risky? Later on in the novel he even recommends them acting as bait. I imagine their isn't some code of ethics that private investigators abide by, but it didn't ring true. It also detracted from the character of Hayden Ivanovich, who was easily the least interesting of the bunch.

 Otherwise, once the novel hit its groove, it got markedly better. Published in 1996, the Internet and technology itself has moved in leaps and bounds, so obviously these elements are quite dated. But the scenario of predators using the Internet to stalk their prey is still frighteningly plausible, so the book never suffers in this respect. It's scary in itself how not much has changed in over fifteen years in regards to the dangers of hooking up on-line. Proceedings get quite suspenseful as it heads towards a surprisingly decent climax. Taking into consideration the positives and negatives, "Don't Talk To Strangers" is worth a look should you manage to stumble across it.

Monday, April 9, 2012

"Dark Places" by Gillian Flynn

Libby Day is a survivor of a massacre that killed her entire family when she was only seven years old. The murderer was her eldest brother Ben Day. Now thirty-one, Libby lives off the trust money set up for her when she was a child. That money is pretty much gone, so Libby must face the prospect of working for the first time in her life. A money-making scheme comes to her, however, when a group of people calling themselves the Kill Club get in touch with her. They want to buy momentos off her; they want insights only she can provide, all for a price.

The catch is that the Kill Club thinks that Ben Day is innocent. They want Libby's help in proving this. After all, she was only seven when her testimony put Ben away for life. Since she needs the money, Libby goes along with it. Of course, she soon finds that there were more than a few truths hidden back when the murders occurred. Her investigation is intercut with flashbacks to the past, from the viewpoints of Ben Day and their mother Patty Day, recounting events of the day the ended in the gruesome deaths.

If there is one thing that "Dark Places" makes obvious it's that no amount of writing style or ability can truly overcome having such a tiresome, annoying main character. Libby Day is self-absorbed, self-pitying and lazy. She's a confessed thief and is entirely unpleasant to everybody she meets. Yet we're supposed to spend 400-odd pages in her company. Why? Why would I want to do that? About the only seemingly sympathetic character is Patty Day, but she's dead by the time the story begins. Even Ben Day, though presented as possibly - even likely - innocent, is a pain in the butt. Think your everyday tortured, misunderstood teen and you get the picture.

That I managed to finish the book says something about both my perserverence and Flynn's eventual ability to draw you into the story. In my opinion, events could have been sped up a little bit in the opening few chapters. It really took time for me to be able to take interest in the plot and characters. As stated, this had a lot to do with Libby Day herself. I didn't like her and, as the story began, didn't really care about what secrets she might uncover when she investigated her past. Still, Flynn does a good job of drawing both past and present strands together, though the finale is disappointly flat.

Yes, fiction can have flawed characters. It should do. But give the reader at least something to hold on to. I can't say it enough - if your main character makes the reader want to reach into the pages of the book and throttle them, something is going wrong. I've read too many otherwise decent thrillers in which this problem simply can't be overcome.