Thursday, June 28, 2012

"Deep Sleep" by Charles Wilson

The Sleep Disorders Institute allows its clients to control their dreams and explore their private fantasies. The institute - a mansion in the Louisiana bayou - comes under scrutiny when a female patient is discovered strangled. Henry Womack, a client who also has political connections, is the only person who can't be accounted for, and he becomes a prime suspect. However, the backwoods parents of deformed local Boudron have also been discovered murdered. The father's head has been left up a tree, which one-armed Boudron (potentially a suspect) should physically be incapable of. However, Henry Womack is an unlikely culprit also due to the time-frame of the murders.

Chief Deputy Mark French, haunted by an incident in his past (aren't they all?) must figure out the various possibilities and motives behind the murders. Another person in his sights is Shasha Dominique, the head of the Institute, and who has a mysterious past loaded with murder and voodoo.

"Deep Sleep" has some good ideas and a decent sense of place with a nice stab at atmosphere, but is mostly an underbaked effort. It simply takes too long for the reader to get a solid idea of where the story is headed. Is this a straight-forward mystery thriller? Is it a voodoo thriller? So much time is spent following Mark French and his never-ending parade of deputies (seriously, there's like fifty of them) in their pursuit of Henry Womack that other story elements are left in the shade. I don't mind being left in the dark a little bit, but it felt like the story was going nowhere for too long. If Wilson had upped the moments of creepy atmosphere, that would have been beneficial as well.

This one may not put you to sleep, but the slumberous pace could certainly have done with some work.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

"Until The Day You Die" by Tina Wainscott

Maggie Fletcher is understandably upset when her sister, Dana O'Reilly, commits suicide after being raped and beaten by stalker Colin Masters. He's particularly good at what he does, so there is no evidence he was ever really after Dana. It seems as if he'll get away with his crime....unless Maggie says she saw him leaving the scene of the crime. Her testimony puts Colin in prison like he deserves, but that is only the beginning of the nightmare. Somebody is still stalking her. They paint the word "liar" at her home and work. They hound her until her only option is to disappear completely and start a new life for herself, her mother and her young son, Luke.

Three years later, she has settled into her new life, and even has a new love interest in Aidan Trew. Until she starts getting little reminders that her stalker is once again in her midst. Small things, so that nobody believes her when she says she is being stalked. When she discovers that Colin has been released from jail on a technicality, she realises he has found her and wants to make her pay for her lie at his trial.

It was very refreshing to find a thriller that wasn't a by-the-numbers romantic suspense tale, nor a police procedural or forensic-driven serial killer thriller. And no gangs in sight! Instead, Until The Day You Die presented an alarmingly credible scenario in which the activities of a stalker causes an otherwise innocent, decent person to completely uproot their life and leave everything behind simply for the sake of sanity and safety. I was really put into Maggie's corner as every facet of her life was threatened. Hell, I was even fearing for the safety of Bonk, the family dog! The book is filled with sequences that you could easily imagine happening in real life to somebody being tormented by a persistant stalker. Wainscott has created a particularly nasty, loathsome villian in Colin Masters. He's truly somebody you love to hate. Maggie is a strong, driven heroine, and it's easy to sympathise with her predicament, even if her situation was caused by a lie she told under oath. The behaviour of her son Luke gets a little hard to tolerate as the novel hits its home stretch, but it at least adds to the suspense of Maggie's hopeless situation.

There is little that I can complain about when it comes to this thriller. It's scarily believable, fast-paced and has well-drawn characters. It may play a lot like your typical made-for-TV movie, but that has never been a sin in my opinion. Check it out.

Monday, June 11, 2012

"Bone Machine" by Martyn Waites

Joe Donovan is an ex-journalist who went off the rails after the disappearance of his son. He now works as part of a team called Albion, taking on private-eye style work. A lawyer contacts him wanting to prove the innocence of her client Michael Nell, who has been arrested for the slayings of two young women (one of whom was an ex-girlfriend), in what appears to be the work of a ritualistic serial killer. Basically, Joe needs to verify that Nell really does spend a lot of time with prostitutes, taking kinky photographs, and is not on the streets murdering college girls.

As it happens, one of Joe's other jobs is protecting Katya Tokic, a Bosnian prostitute. Her and her brother are the only ones who can testify against warlord Marco Kovacs, who committed all sorts of atrocities and is now in England. He figures she might be useful when chatting to the local hookers. However, this job brings him into the sights of Kovacs, who will stop at nothing in tracking Katya down. Not to mention a serial killer who is obsessed with the history of the region.

"Bone Machine" is pretty much a dead-on representation of what I hate about the crime genre. The serial killer aspect - the main focus in the plot summary on the back of the book - is merely an afterthought. This is yet another British crime thriller about gangsters. Yawn. I'm sick to bloody death of this subgenre. Mark Billingham, otherwise a strong writer, has trotted out some appalling thrillers when he focuses on gangsters. Same with Val McDermid. It is simply not interesting, gripping or suspenseful. I could care less about the inner workings of gangs. The serial killer angle is almost tangential to the proceedings. The two storyline strands have little to do with each other. On top of all this, "Bone Machine" is mostly soap opera. Joe Donovan has demons regarding his missing son. Team member Amar is a drug addict who films gay porn for rich clients. Team member Jamal is a former street kid who had to do horrible things to get by. But now he resents the presence of Katya in his "family" and her budding relationship with Joe. Yawn, yawn, yawn. At least two thirds of the book is taken up with these characters ruminations over the state of their lives.

Martyn Waites is a good writer. That much is clear. Strong prose, very descriptive, smart dialogue. But the book is an utter bore. Sometimes I think it's a crime to want a fast-paced, crackling thriller with bursts of action and plenty of plot twists. It feels like that sort of novel is becoming a rare breed. Admittedly, the pace in "Bone Machine" really picks up as it heads towards its conclusion, but it can't disguise the fact this is a gangster soap opera and NOT a crime thriller.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

"The Grief Shop" by Vicki Stiefel

Tally White is a homicide counsellor for a Grief Assistance Program in Massachusetts, in which she helps the survivors of homicide victims cope with their loss. One night, somebody breaks into the office of the Chief Medical Examiner and leaves the body of nine-year-old Rose for Tally to find. With her is the message "Sins Of The Father". She immediately calls her friend Sgt. Rob Kranak to the scene.

Events only become more twisted. Rose's best friend is missing, possibly in the clutches of the killer. And Tally's foster mother Dr. Veda Barrows - the Chief Medical Examiner herself - is in the hospital with a mysterious ailment that has cost her her memory and appears to be slowly killing her. A brief encounter with a nurse leads Tally to believe that Veda's condition is linked to the dead and missing girls. More dead bodies start piling up and there even appear to be links to artworks stolen by the Nazis during the Holocaust (Veda is a Holocaust survivor). Tally and Rob must find out the truth, whilst Tally also struggles to keep the Grief Assistance Program afloat whilst Veda's successors try to dismantle it.

In the hands of a more capable author, "The Grief Shop" could have been a really cracking thriller. There are plenty of plot twists and lots of intrigue. The characters are well-defined and believable. The love triangle that develops between Tally, her boyfrriend Hank Cunningham and Rob Kranak, whom she suddenly finds herself developing feelings for, doesn't feel forced. The problem is that as the story races towards its climax, it becomes increasingly sillier, and the why-who-what behind events becomes increasingly cloudier. What exactly was done to Veda to turn her into a near-zombie and basically kill her? It's never really explained. Who actually kidnapped young Becky? Was it the killer? One of the killer's associates? Or her parents? It's never really explained. The inordinate amount of time spent with the art gallery owner and their Nazi artworks clues the reader in that it has some sort of bearing on the plot. Yet, when all is revealed, there is never a convincing or tangible explanation as to how the artwork is connected to the kidnapping and murdering of young girls. It appears as if Stiefel had a smattering of good ideas, threw them all in, then failed to adequately link them all. I think it's telling that Stiefel published one more book after this (this one is actually the third in a series) and then fell off the radar.

"The Grief Shop" isn't a complete loss. If anything, the biggest disappointment is that it falls short of being something special. As mentioned, the pace is consistent with plenty of intrigue and well-paced action. But a little more explanation behind the "why" of everything would have really helped proceedings.