Monday, December 10, 2012

"The Chill Of Night" by James Hayman

Elaine "Lainie" Goff is discovered frozen solid in the boot of an abandoned vehicle. While Detective Michael McCabe looks into the lawyer's life to find suspects and motives, he eventually learns of the existence of a witness. Abby Quinn's claims of witnessing a murder were initially dismissed because she has a history of mental illness and suicide attempts. She is now on the run, so McCabe must locate her before the killer does. And find the killer, of course.

I'm beginning to lose count of the number of thrillers I've read lately in which the lead detective has an eidetic memory, or some super-special skill that gets them inside the heads of serial killers. Michael McCabe has an eidetic memory. Right now I'm reading "The Night Stalker" by Chris Carter, whose on-going protagonist Robert Hunter is highly intelligent and got into university when he was twelve. Or fourteen? I forget. He was young, anyway.

Ever notice that no matter how wonderful, fantastic, skilled or near-supernaturally gifted the lead detective or FBI profiler is, they never manage to find the culprit in under 400 pages? Funny, that.

As you can see from the plot description, there's not a lot going on here. The novel plays out a lot like a "Law & Order" episode, as McCabe questions possible suspects such as Lainie's boss-and-lover Henry Ogden, the director of a teen homeless shelter Lainie worked at pro-bono, and her creepy landlord. McCabe's team, with a seemingly never-ending number of detectives, methodically gather clues and evidence and send it off for testing. Basically, it's yet another police procedural with an emphasis on the procedure. Author Hayman likes to do his research, and it shows. It also makes the book remarkably dull. By page 250, nobody's really learnt much more than what they did when the book began.

The sequences involving Abby Quinn are quite well done, as she's the only character in any sort of danger. Her mental illness is a convenient method for the author to provide an excuse as to why Abby can't identify the killer - only that he has a head of fire and icicles for eyes. It was a bit obvious and lame. But then, if we knew who the killer was right off the bat, it would have made this snoozefest even harder to finish, right?

As for the identity of the killer, it's not my powerful skills of deduction that let me figure it out here. Rather, I recognised the crappy ploys used by crappy writers to keep the killer's identity a secret. Do you reckon the killer is any of the people McCabe identifies as having means, opportunity and motive to kill Lainie? Or could it be some other character never raised as a possible suspect, with a secret motive that will handily be provided once he/she is unmasked? If you guessed the latter, you've probably read more than one thriller in your life and can see through the tricks author Hayman so lazily employs.

Something else highly evident is the author's homophobia. "The Cutting", his previous novel, was pretty terrible on this count. "The Chill Of Night" isn't quite as extreme, but it's still disconcerting that McCabe and his team quickly pick somebody to be their prime suspect once that person reveals he's gay. He's then accused of not just raping and killing a woman, but molesting children as well because, of course, if he's gay he's only one step away from all sorts of sexual depravity. It's an attitude that belongs in the dark ages, and I'm surprised such attitudes could see the light of day in a book released by a major publisher such as Penguin Books.

"The Chill Of Night" is a bore. Who cares if it's accurate? I kept falling asleep while reading it. Aside from Abby Quinn's plight, NOTHING IS HAPPENING HERE, FOLKS. Go watch a "Law & Order" episode instead. It only takes an hour, and it will provide a dozen more plot twists than what you're going to find in this drivel.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

"Merciless" by Mary Burton

A serial killer and rapist have teamed up, in which the rapist gets to have his way with the female victim first, before handing her over to the serial killer, who murders her and then goes through the process of stripping the flesh from the bones.

The bones of aspiring actress Sierra Day are left for detectives Deacon Garrison and Malcolm Kier to discover. Although there are a few people out there with motives, the prime suspect turns out to be Dr. James Dixon, who has recently escaped being convicted of the attempted murder of Lulu Sweet, who is now a reformed prostitute and trying to reclaim custody of her young son.

The case soon involves Dixon's lawyer Angie Carlson, who managed to help get him off, but otherwise wants nothing to do with him, as she thinks there's something funny about him. Malcolm is a complete asshole to Angie, but that seems to peak her interest. In any case, they must work together after Lulu goes missing, and start digging into Angie's past to find what her connection to the killer/s is.

The book cover is decent enough to tell you that "Merciless" is a sequel to "Senseless". At first I thought this was because it featured characters from the previous novel, but like most romantic suspense novels, would veer off on its own course. Not so here. "Merciless" is indeed quite strongly linked to the previous novel, and while you could probably read it as a stand-alone, it is recommended that you read "Senseless" first.

I thought "Senseless" was a pretty decent thriller, and "Merciless" is even better. The plot was intricate and exciting. For the most part, the characters were well-defined and interesting. It was good to see Angie at the forefront. She's smart and capable, and less irritating than Eva Rayburn, who was the heroine of the previous novel. Not that Eva was a horrible character, but Angie had smidgeon less anguish, and less of a chip on her shoulder.

I didn't like Malcolm all that much. You really don't learn much about him and he fails to come alive. He's a detective and he's a complete asshole to Angie. That's mostly it. After 75% of the novel spent being a dick to Angie, his turnaround to grudging respect and then desire and love for her, is not very credible. It seems more of a case of throwing a central romance into the narrative so it could be classified as romantic suspense and not turn off Burton's fan-base. Otherwise, "Merciless" is a fast-paced entertaining thriller that should please readers whether they like romantic suspense or not. So while the romantic aspect doesn't take away from the novel, it fails to add anything to it, either. There's no obstacle to keep them apart other than the fact Malcolm is skilled in the art of douchery.

While I appreciated that the plot tied in closely with events in the first novel, it was also something of a drawback. The plot was going in one direction, and then the links to the past suddenly came into play about halfway through. All things considered, I didn't understand why Angie was a target. I would have thought the killer/s would have been after Eva. Here, Eva is relegated to fetching food for the other characters when they visit the restaurant she works at.

Nevertheless, "Merciless" is the work of a writer who deserves to take her place with the big names. If Mary Burton ever gets brave enough to abandon the romantic suspense formula and template, she could really deliver something special. "Merciless" was engaging and suspenseful.

Friday, December 7, 2012

"Bloodman" by Robert Pobi

Special Agent Jake Cole is in Montauk, Long Island, to see his artist father Jacob Coleridge, who is the victim of encroaching senility and has also just burnt off his hands in a household accident. The two do not have a close relationship.

As it happens, Jake is called upon by Sheriff Mike Hauser. A woman and her son have been discovered skinned alive. Jake has an eidetic (photographic) memory, and has a unique ability to see into the minds of killers. But, really, don't they all these days?

The case quickly becomes personal for Jake, as his mother was skinned alive thirty-odd years ago, and it looks like it is the same killer. When Jake's girlfriend Kay and their son Jeremy arrive to visit, Jake must try to protect them from both the Bloodman and a rapidly approaching hurricane.

This is one of those dreaded "big twist" novels, where everything is set up for that big final revelation. That's fine if you've never read a thriller before and can get fooled by a twist ending that's been done dozens of times already, but if you're not completely stupid, it's frustrating and insulting. Aside of from being completely predictable, this one commits the other sin of being sleep-inducingly boring. This is despite lots of lurid descriptions of skinned victims, and kinky erotic asphyxiation sex between Jake and Kay. Blecch.

Then there's the over-reliance on description. You know what I mean. A hurricane is coming. Entire chapters are devoted to describing it. Entire chapters devoted to describing what a house looks like. And Jake and Mike spend a LOT of time repeating a conversation similar to this:

Mike: "Who would do something like this?"
Jake: "A monster", or "you don't want to know", or something else that manages to be both smug and vague.

As for the big twist, I'll leave you with the clues that let me figure out how it was all going to end. These are not spoilers, as they are all delivered within the first 150 pages. They are all repeated and explained in the finale, as the author assumes you were too stupid to pick up on them the first time around:

* The mother and son victims at the start of the novel are never identified, but all subsequent victims are.
* When Kay and Jeremy wave at tourists, they don't wave back. But they wave back to Jake.
* None of the other characters beside Jake ever talk to Kay and Jeremy.
* When Jake orders pizza, only one pizza is delivered, but he insists he ordered three.
* Jake has a contraption attached to his heart, which keeps him alive. It causes him to black out. A dead body is usually discovered shortly afterwards.

Other questions arise. How on Earth can Jake get clearance for field work when he has a device similar to a pacemaker keeping him alive? Why is his father recreating obscure portraits of a faceless figure as some sort of clue, rather than just revealing the truth? Despite the senility, he's depicted as having several lengthy periods of lucidity.

My answer is that every single element of this novel is contrived and artificial for the purpose of not only trying to keep that stupid twist ending a secret, but to justify its existence in the first place. This is a dull, mechanical and cynical novel. It has complete contempt towards its audience and is possibly the worst I have read this year (and I've read my share of stinkers).

Monday, December 3, 2012

"Never Knowing" by Chevy Stevens

Sara Gallagher is adopted. Pained by a lifetime of disinterest from her adoptive father, she decides to find her birth parents. Her birth mother wants nothing to do with her, however. Sara discovers this is because her birth mother was the only person to ever survive an attack by the Campsite Killer. Sara is the product of a rape and her birth father is a famous serial killer who still hasn't been captured.

When the facts about her history are made highly public on the Internet, Sara is contacted by her father, who calls himself John. He wants a relationship with the daughter he never knew. This prompts her to get in contact with the police, and she eventually becomes part of their team in an effort to track him through the phone calls.

This takes an extreme toll on Sara's life and those around her, including her fiance Evan and her six-year-old daughter Ally. Even worse, John seems to think that she's the only thing in his life that can keep him from killing more women.

"Never Knowing" has a terrific central concept and then fails to do anything interesting with it. After the initial set-up, practically the whole novel consists of Sara receiving a phone call from John, the police telling her which part of Canada he is in but they can't find him, and Sara feeling guilty over the potential danger she is bringing to Evan and Ally, or feeling that it's her fault that another woman might die. Repeat that scenario about fifty f***ing times and there's your book. There are also a couple of face-to-face meetings set up, but it's fairly obvious John is going to cancel, as there's still 200 pages of the book left to go.

Sara is a completely insufferable character. Whiny, self-absorbed, and wishy-washy. The author seems to want to explore how having a serial killer be your father can make one wonder about their own dark nature, but with Sara it all keeps coming across as immature whining. Basically, Sara constantly complains about the situation she is in, but it's her own decisions that have put her there in the first place. An inordinate amount of time is spent with Sara asking Evan what she should do, only for her to then go and ignore it and do what she wants anyway. Why doesn't he understand HER decision? Why can't he see it from HER point of view?

Sara's also a total martyr. If I had to read the sentence "it was all my fault" one more time, I could have thrown the book across the room. She HAS to remain a part of the case, because she's the ONLY one who can stop him.

The rest of the characters don't fare much better. Her father's indifference and self-absorption borders on sociopathy. There's never an attempt to explain why he's such an asshole, other than he didn't really want to adopt. Sandy, one of the detectives on the case, throws massive guilt trips on Sara and engages in conduct that would likely to get a real-life detective fired or suspended on the spot. Her birth mother, Julia, is a miserable bitch who calls Sara up or invites her over to either tell her to leave her alone, or say outrageously unfair things to her. Sara's complete inability to tell these people to f*** off (instead she panders to them) made me like her even less. Her daughter Ally's bratty behaviour even became tiresome at times.

Like the author's previous novel "Still Missing", the story is told through sessions with Sara's psychiatrist. While that approach worked in "Still Missing", it is not appropriate here. Sara's tendency to drop everything to race to see her shrink only added another irritating element to her character. Can she do anything without overreacting or consulting fifty different people? I'm not sure why Stevens would go to the same well in terms of writing style; it smacks more of the author having used up her bag of tricks. Should have just told the story in a linear fashion; the shrink sessions add nothing.

Any positives? There are a couple of sequences in the last quarter of the book that generate the suspense necessary for a thriller of this type. If only it didn't take so long to get to them, or that all that time had to be spent with somebody so idiotic and annoying.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

"Watch Me Die" by Erica Spindler

Mira Gallier has a successful career as a restoration artist for windows. Her latest job is restoring a beautiful church window of Mary Magdalene. Despite professional security, Mira is still a complete wreck after the death of her husband Jeff during Hurricane Katrina six years ago.

When a church is vandalised and the priest killed, her connection to the restored windows of that church draws the attention of detective Spencer Malone. He's also coping with breaking in new partner Karin Bayle, who has just come back to work after an emotional breakdown.

Mira is conflicted by her feelings for Connor Scott, Jeff's best friend, who took off to serve in the army shortly before Jeff's death. She's also being haunted by Jeff's scent in her home, and what appears to be phone calls from him.

Other victims begin to pop up. They all have a connection to Mira. This, combined with the phone calls, have Mira believing she might be going crazy. Spencer and Karin argue over whether Mira or Connor are the killer, or working together. As for Mira, she also suspects all the people in her life as having something to do with her current predicament.

I think Erica Spindler's work is beginning to regress. For a while there, she was delivering well-plotted thrillers with strong female protagonists. With "Watch Me Die" we have another female protagonist, much like the one in "Blood Vines", who spends much of her time dramatically throwing herself into the arms of the nearest man to rest her head against his solid chest because it's ALL JUST TOO MUCH.

Everything in Mira's life is ALL JUST TOO MUCH. It's been six years since her husband's death and she still can't let go. After a while you just get tired of hearing about it. I imagine in real life there are plenty of people who can't move on from a dramatic, traumatising period in their life, but it sure ain't fun to read about. Mira is a really exasperating character. She seems to have no common sense. Despite having consultations with psychologist Adele Jasper for several years, she only just decides Adele is untrustworthy because Adele was recommended to her by a casual acquaintance of her mother-in-law at Jeff's funeral. She didn't think to check Adele's qualifications back then???

Similarly, she begins to think Jeff might still be alive because of the phone calls. You see, his body was recovered, but could never be properly identified because of all the damage to it. It never occurs to her that if Jeff were still alive he would have probably made contact with her in the space of SIX YEARS. But the combination of phone calls, being a murder suspect, and having Connor back in her life and revealing startling truths about what Jeff was really like is ALL JUST TOO MUCH.

The book desperately tries to paint Connor as a prime suspect, but Spindler has reverted too fully into the typical romantic suspense template for it to truly succeed. After that, there's only one person who it could really be....

"Watch Me Die" is Spindler's weakest effort in recent memory. An insipid heroine sinks it, and an obvious, predictable plot torpedoes it.

And what was with Mira's assistant Deni calling her up and saying she'd seen Adele driving around with a passenger who looked just like Jeff? Who was her mysterious lover Bill Smith? These plot strands are raised and never explained. Lazy.

"Killing Kelly" by Heather Graham

Kelly Trent is a daytime soap actress on the hit show "Valentine Valley". She plays Marla Valentine, a man-hating advice columnist. But it seems somebody can't discern between fantasy and reality, and wants Kelly/Marla gone forever. A near-fatal accident on-set sees Kelly's character put on indefinite hiatus. Her agent suggests she take on a role in a music video clip for hot band Kill Me Quick's new single "Tango To Terror" to keep her face and profile in the public eye.

Since Kelly can't dance, a dance instructor is brought on board. Luckily, Doug O'Casey is both a former cop and licenced private investigator as well, so he can teach her to dance and act as her bodyguard as well. When real-life advice therapists start showing up dead, and more attempts are seemingly made on Kelly's life, she must figure out if somebody she already knows is obsessed with knocking her off permanently.

This is a follow-up to "Dead On The Dance Floor", which I have read, but can't remember too many details of it. I dare say it wasn't as tedious, obvious and far-fetched as this effort. A dance instructor who is also a former cop with a private investigator's licence? Talk about contrived. Of course, being a romantic suspense writer, Graham throws in multiple characters from previous books, to the point where it is difficult to keep them all apart. For God's sake, if you're not going to progress the characters from previous novels, or their relationships, just leave them out!

Kelly Trent herself is an extremely annoying character. Understandably, she doesn't want the death and destruction around her to be because of her, as that means her life is really is in danger, but she uses this an excuse to be blatantly naive, and do whatever she wants, no matter how dangerous it is. Any reasonably intelligent person who wanted to remain skeptical, could at least show some freaking common sense. Kelly has none. Zero. Zilch. She deserved to be knocked off by an unstable fan.

The suspects are all interchangeable. Graham at least has the decency to make the culprit one of the suspects, rather than pull some Scooby-Doo surprise villian out of her hat. Their motive and execution of it still lacks coherency, however. I had picked up a couple of extra Heather Graham novels (cheaply) because "Ghost Shadow" was such an unexpected above-average surprise. But "Killing Kelly" is a meandering, contrived, loosely plotted mess filled with badly-developed characters.