Wednesday, August 29, 2012

"The Lake" by Richard Laymon

Deana West is out on a date with her boyfriend when they are attacked and chased by a demented man in a chef's hat. The attack results in the death of Deana's boyfriend. When police sergeant Mace Harrison and his police partner Mattie get involved, they are able to identify the attacker as Nelson, a chef who works at the restaurant owned by Deana's mother Leigh.

The story then shifts eighteen years into the past when Leigh was eighteen years old and shipped off to stay with her aunt and uncle because of her troublesome behaviour. At a lakeside home, she soon meets shy Charlie Payne, who seems reluctant to get involved with Leigh because of his crazy mother. However, it isn't long before they give in to their teenage lust. However, things end tragically....and we learn how Leigh got pregnant with Deana.

It would appear that psychotic Nelson is the least of Deana and Leigh's worries. There is another psycho out there, one who remembers what happened between Leigh and Charlie all those years ago. Somebody who is determined to make them pay.

The identity of this person is pretty easy to figure out, and I'm not sure if it was supposed to be a surprise. I sure hope it wasn't meant to be a surprise. I grabbed "The Lake" because I am a fan of Richard Laymon's work. He has a terrific writing style that plays out like a perfect exploitation/grindhouse 70s or 80s horror movie. You can see events happening as he describes them. He has a knack for creating creepy and scary scenarios that would be perfect for the big screen. However, his novels are usually so whacked-out, violent and nasty it would take a brave movie studio to actually adapt his work.

I was after something a mindless, nasty and fun. I was a bit over all the "safe" and "predictable" crime novels/romantic suspense novels I was reading, and ready for something a more edgy, which is what Laymon usually provides. "The Lake" does have Laymon's typical smattering of over-the-top gore, but it was in a book that simply did not hold together from chapter to chapter. Now, Laymon died in 2001 (a great loss to the horror-writing community), and this book was published in 2004. Perhaps the publishing company put out an unfinished manuscript without bothering to hire an editor to see if the story was actually fit to be published. It's the only explanation I can think of to justify the release of such a disjointed, badly plotted novel.

There are two twisted psychos at play here. On the one hand I can't really complain, as plenty of crime authors pull that trick (hey, James Patterson!). On the other hand, Laymon has typically been above that sort of ploy. Check out "Among The Missing". It could rival any typical crime novel. His previous works have always been so carefully plotted. What was the rationale behind the "creatures" who attacked Nelson under the bridge? They're mentioned in one chapter and never heard from again. What was the point of the "Mommy Dearest" character that Deana keeps encountering, and her strange retirement home? It ultimately has zero relevance to the main plot. Why did the suggestion of one character's psychic powers suddenly become fact right when needed? For about 90% of the book, there is no indication that the plot is operating in some sort of supernatural realm! I would accuse the writer of being lazy, but there's no way to tell if Laymon actually considered this manuscript fit for publication!

I won't get into the ridiculous character moves or the author's obsession with womens' breasts and nipples. They've been a factor in all his novels, even the really good ones. Although some of the significantly stupid character moves here will make your jaw drop. There is also lots and lots of sex, perhaps more than usual. Laymon has never shied away from being smutty, but it began to bore here.

On a positive note, and a surprising one, there is no rape to be found here. Sure, the female characters suffer all sorts of abuse and violence, but not rape. I have always been a bit uncomfortable with Laymon's exploitative approach to rape, but I usually enjoy his novels so much that I usually get past it. It's a real pity that one of the few times he doesn't resort to it is in such a below-par novel.

"The Lake" is terrible, perhaps one of the worst I've read. But I won't hold it against the author, as he isn't alive to defend, justify or explain it. It does have its moments, but they are few and far between. There are still other Laymon novels out there I haven't read yet, and this bomb is hardly likely to make me give up on him. He truly is one of the best horror writers you're likely to find.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

"Night Watch" by Linda Fairstein

Assistant DA Alexandra Cooper is on a romantic holiday in France with her restaurateur boyfriend Luc Rouget. The romance is cut short when the dead body of one of Luc's former employees is found in a fountain. A promotional matchbook for Luc's planned New York restaurant has been found on the body.

The holiday itself is cut short when Alex is called back to New York for a high-profile case in which hotel maid Blanca Robles has accused Mohammed Gil-Darsin of raping her in his room. Gil-Darsin is the head of the World Economic Bureau, so the case is attracting heavy publicity. Cooper must work with her nemesis Pat McKinney to get the full story out of the maid so that they can take it to the grand jury. However, the case is complicated by a civil suit that Blanca wants to bring, plus the fact that more and more inconsistencies keep popping up in her story.

Alex's personal and professional life gets thrown into further turmoil when a dead body is discovered in New York. This person also had a promotional matchbook on their body, just like the murder victim in France. It seems as if rivalry in the restaurant industry can be a deadly business. It also has Alex questioning her relationship with Luc.


The novel's blurb states that Alex fears the two cases are connected. I can tell you now that they're not. They barely intersect. The rape case subplot then gets wrapped up with no real resolution whatsoever. Gil-Darsin's wife shoots him dead on the steps of the courthouse. Do we learn if Robles was in fact telling the truth or lying through her teeth? No. Nothing. We spend all that time with a prominent subplot only for the author to decide it wasn't worth her time to give us a proper wrap-up. An accused person being shot down is a common plot ploy in "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit". They've used it hundreds of times. But that is a television show that only takes up an hour of your time. I allocated what amounted to at least a full day on this drivel, so it's really not acceptable. It's a real pity, because the rape subplot - obviously based on Dominique Strauss-Kahn's real-life rape accusation - is highly engaging and interesting. Had the focus been on this plot, with a possible connection to the restaurant murders, "Night Watch" could have been a real winner. Ironically, "Law & Order: SVU" had its own episode based on Dominique Strauss-Kahn with many of the same plot twists. They told a much better story in 45 minutes than "Night Watch" manages in 400 pages.

The next element that sinks this novel is the restaurant rivalry. It's dull. The novel might as well have been called "Diet Watch" considering the amount of time we spend reading about what Alex, Mike Chapman and Mercer Wallace eat. They flitter from one restaurant to another playing kissy-kissy with all the restaurant owners while nominally discussing the cut-throat world of owning restaurants. It gets unbelievably boring. I really couldn't have cared less. By the time the finale rolled around, I wasn't too sure why the killer wanted people dead. The plot is not developed enough or explored enough for there to be any tangible threat. All of a sudden the major players are at a wine estate and in dire danger. I flicked through the final chapters with no real sense of attachment to the proceedings, or interest in what might go down.

Next we have Luc Rouget. Despite being Alex's boyfriend, he's never had much presence in these novels. A phone call here or there, or maybe a quick visit. Here he takes centre stage. However, I've never had much reason to care about him or what happens to him. Fairstein herself has never given me a reason to. He was always very much a background character. Why am I supposed to care now? The suspense of the novel is supposed to derive from who is trying to frame him. Well, I barely even know who Luc Rouget is. I don't care who's trying to frame him. I was more interested in the rape case that Alexandra was handling. But that plot kept getting dropped so I could visit yet another restaurant with Alex and Luc. Or Alex and Mike. Or all of them together. Yawn.

After not mentioning it for a few novels, Fairstein brings up the fact there is chemistry between Alex and Mike, but it could never go anywhere because she'd have to give up her job. Is Fairstein planning to bring these characters together? She seriously needs to make some progress in this direction or drop the possibility altogether, as the series is reaching a numbing sense of equilibrium; no matter what happens to the characters, they're always back in the same headspace and situation by the end of the book.

From what I can gather, Linda Fairstein's husband Justin Feldman died during the writing of this book. Her love for him was always very clear in each of her novels (she had a character of the same name in the books, and often mentioned him in her acknowledgements), so I was very sorry to hear this. But in those circumstances, wouldn't it be okay to take a year off? I can hardly blame her if her attention wasn't fully on delivering an exciting, cohesive thriller. "Night Watch" delivers two undercooked plotlines that fail to satisfy.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

"Damaged" by Alex Kava

Special Agent Maggie O'Dell is sent to Florida, right in the eye of a high-category, destructive hurricane, to investigate the discovery of a cooler box that contains multiple body parts. Meanwhile, tentative love interest Colonel Benjamin Platt is sent off to investigate a mysterious disease that is killing wounded soldiers. Also thrown into the mix is Scott Larsen, a funeral director who is about to go into business with the mysterious Joe Black, whose business in dealing with body parts might not entirely be on the up-and-up. Maggie must uncover the link between her case and Platt's, whilst also surviving a deadly hurricane.

Although "Damaged" is better than Kava's previous "Black Friday", it is a seriously undercooked effort. At under 350 pages in a very large font with huge spacing, I was able to finish the entire book in just two lunch breaks. There is very little plot here. On a positive note, Maggie isn't the useless fumbling moron she usually is. And Kava does a good job in generating suspense regarding the arrival of the hurricane. I could feel the stillness in the air and the underlying panic of the characters. It was also nice to see that there was absolutely no sign of Nick Morelli, who kept popping up in other novels in increasingly ridiculous ways. Maggie and Benjamin's attraction suggests we might have finally seen the last of that character.

But seriously, this book is far too skimpy to deliver any sort of satisfactory thrills or mystery. The frequent jumping between points of view further reduces the opportunity to delve into the storyline to any degree of satisfaction. I am a little angry that a prominent author and publishing company would release something so thin. There's an Author's Note, some Acknowledgements, a short story and a preview of Kava's next novel all added to try and make the book look thicker! "Damaged" is diverting and served its purpose in that regard, but if Kava wants to retain any sort of readership, she needs to stop assuming that her readers are morons with short attention spans.

"Playing Dead" by Allison Brennan

Claire O'Brien is a private investigator still haunted by the fact her father Tom O'Brien murdered her mother and her mother's lover, plus the fact her evidence helped put him away. An earthquake has allowed Tom to escape from prison, and he is determined to prove to his daughter that he is innocent. He believes that he is the victim of a significant frame-up. Unfortunately, the only person with the evidence to take it further - Oliver Maddox - has just been found dead. However, the suspicious circumstances surrounding his death are enough to make Claire look into his story more closely. She begins to doubt her certainty that Tom was guilty of the murders.

FBI Agent Mitch Bianchi has worked his way into Claire's life by pretending to be a writer. He wants to track down Tom O'Brien. Tom has helped Mitch capture other escapees who absconded during that prison break, so he also suspects that Tom might be innocent of the crime that landed him with the death penalty. Mitch has genuine feelings for Claire, but understandably worries that could all be blown away should she discover that he has been lying to her. Meanwhile, the assassin who really did murder Claire's mother (and her lover) has an obsession for Claire that has lasted for over a decade, and he's finally ready to let his true feelings be known. Can Claire and Mitch's relationship survive his dishonesty, the uncovering of a major conspiracy and the fact an assassin can't decide whether he wants to bang her or kill her?

"Playing Dead" is actually quite a decent romantic suspense thriller. The conspiracy is really well-handled. I hate it when an author tries to keep too much hidden for too long. Here, bits and pieces are revealed at a steady rate, ensuring that you remain involved in the mystery being uncovered. The reader also only discovers facts when the main characters themselves do. We don't have to follow around a detective while they decipher clues that have already been uncovered several chapters earlier. Here, we find stuff out at the same time as Claire and Mitch. It helped keep me in their corner. Plot-wise, Brennan is really in control and there's not anything I can fault.

This being romantic suspense, however, there are aspects that irked me. Mitch's pretense at being a writer is the crux of the "barrier" between him and Claire finding everlasting love, which I understand. But his behaviour really is appalling. He doesn't think twice about hopping onto her computer and checking her e-mails after she has left the house. This is a major no-no in ANY relationship, romantic or otherwise. He's not the least bit concerned about it - he's only worried that she'll be upset he lied about being a writer. He's never even taken to task for this particular breach of trust. Finally, his soppy, overly melodramatic "don't die on me, Claire!" theatrics during the finale really took me out of the book. It detracted from what was actually quite a nasty, hard-edged final confrontation.

Yes, there's a lot of repetition here, as is common for the romantic suspense genre. Claire is constantly going on about how her life has been turned upside down by her mother's murder, her father's arrest and now his possible innocence. Mitch constantly agonises over his "necessary" betrayal of Claire. But I've come to accept this as a necessary evil in the genre, and was able to focus on the many positive aspects of the novel. I was not too impressed by "Killing Fear", the first book in this trilogy, but "Playing Dead" was an accomplished, involving romantic thriller.

"Manner Of Death" by Stephen White

Psychologist Dr. Alan Gregory is having lunch (after attending a funeral) with his wife Lauren when they are approached by two people who turn out to be former FBI agents. AJ Simes and Milton Custer have come to believe that the person whose funeral they just attended is the latest victim of a serial killer targeting the doctors and other personnel undertaking training some fifteen years earlier. Alan Gregory himself was undergoing training at that time. Just about all the people he worked with are now dead, in situations that all looked like accidents. The only other person still alive is Dr. Sawyer Sackett, a woman that Alan was deeply in love with, but who broke his heart.

As Sawyer comes back into his life, Alan must struggle with his feelings her for, and how this affects his marriage. Also, the possibility of a killer lurking in his midst becomes more and more believable as Alan narrowly escapes death in a number of strange accidents. He and Sawyer must think back fifteen years to figure out who could be so mad at them to pursue this plan of revenge, whilst also not breaching any confidentiality laws regarding their profession.

I first discovered author Stephen White through the ripper thriller "Warning Signs", and immediately tracked down several of his other works. None have quite matched that terrific book - some have been good, others have been dull. "Manner Of Death" unfortunately falls into the latter category. Too much time is spent establishing whether or not Alan really is being stalked. Then we have a series of flashbacks establishing who might be so angry at him and his colleagues that they'd go on a fifteen-year-long revenge spree. Suffice to say, the motives provided are very thin. Another significant chunk of the story is devoted to Alan's feelings towards Sawyer. The author struggles to portray her as much more than a manipulative bitch, and Alan's dopey behaviour around her only makes him look like a naive douche. A backstory is finally provided that explains Sawyer's behaviour, but you'll be rolling your eyes many times before it is revealed.

When you have to throw a deadly stray mountain lion into your narrative to invigorate proceedings, then you know something is wrong. The identity of the killer is completely arbitrary and the final confrontation is decidedly sleazy, much out of step with the rest of the novel, which is, at best, a light mystery.

The novel makes several references to D.B. Cooper, who orchestrated a masterful plane hijacking and was never caught. It is suggested one of the characters could be that elusive fugitive. It was intriguing enough that I actually hopped onto Wikipedia to read more about the legend. If a book can make you research a topic further, you know you are in the hands of a capable author. "Manner Of Death" isn't a complete waste of time, and White has proven before that he can deliver a pacy, exciting thriller. This isn't one of them, but I'm sure there are others out there. And I'll find them.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

"Silent Mercy" by Linda Fairstein

Assistant District Attorney Alexandra Cooper's latest case involves the headless body of a woman, which has been set on fire on the front steps of a church. This is followed by another woman, whose throat has been slit and her tongue cut out, also left at a church. Alex teams up with homicide detective Mike Chapman and Special Victims detective Mercer Wallace, and their investigation soon leads them to suspect that the killer is targeting religious "pariahs". In particular, strong women who challenge religion's established views. For example - women not being allowed to be priests.

The group must figure out the link between the victims so that they can anticipate who might be the killer's next target - in between a lot of dry New York history and Mike Chapman acting like a chauvinistic jerk, of course.

Fairstein's thrillers are finely-tuned machines, and "Silent Mercy" is no exception. After a slow start, this one settles into gear and is quite diverting. The frequent forays into Alex's other cases has been toned down somewhat, and the focus is kept on the central mystery. And, despite my earlier jibe about dry New York history, Fairstein has also toned down this aspect too. Yes, there is plenty of time devoted to explaining the history behind various New York churches and their respective religions, but it thankfully doesn't get too heavy-handed.

Unfortunately, no headway has been made with the character of Mike Chapman. Seriously, what an oaf. Does anybody outside of the 1950s call women "broads" anymore? Come on! He remains a borderline misogynist and is a real pain in the ass. Even after twelve books (this is number thirteen), I still can't understand why a supposedly educated feminist lawyer such as Alexandra Cooper puts up with his bullshit. Why can't she team up with Mercer for her investigations? He's portrayed as a solid, intelligent and likeable guy but continues to be sorely underutilised in this series.

My other issue here is that, more than any other book, I couldn't quite figure out why Alex was so involved in the investigation. In other novels, there are usually more personal politics at play in the mysteries, which justifies her presence, as the culprit is typically one of the peripheral characters. This time we've almost got a straight-forward serial killer thriller and the murderer is an unknown quantity. I just didn't see why a DA would be dragged around - or even be allowed to.

Nevertheless, "Silent Mercy" manages to ratchet up the excitement in its home-stretch. The island-bound finale is far-fetched and borders on campy, but had me stealing some illicit extra minutes at work in an effort to finish.