Thursday, July 25, 2013

"Obsession" by Debra Webb

Jess Harris is an FBI Agent whose career is in the dumps after a botched attempt to nail a serial killer. She returns to her hometown in Alabama to help the local police solve the mystery of four missing women. She has a history with police chief Dan Burnett, and the romantic tension between them is still evident.

When a fifth woman goes missing, Jess must put her unresolved feelings for Dan, and her guilt over her failed career, behind so that she can place all her focus on tracking the abductor. It's personal for Dan, as his stepdaughter, Andrea Denton is one of the kidnapped women. As for Jess, she also has to deal with the fact the serial killer she failed to catch - The Player - is now walking free and seemingly stalking her.

Debra Webb is a romantic suspense author with quite a prolific output. The publishers here seem to want to convince us that this is her "thriller" debut - that is, a straight out crime-thriller rather than a romantic suspense novel. On that front, it's a bit of a fail. This is romantic suspense through and through. There is just as much focus on the unresolved relationship between Jess and Dan as there is into the investigation of the missing women. It actually got fairly repetitive. There is also romantic trouble between Lori Wells and Chet Harper, two of Dan's detectives. So anybody thinking they're picking up a serial killer thriller is going to be sorely disappointed.

When it isn't devoting its time to Jess and Dan's romantic woes, it's not too bad. It actually reminded me quite a lot of the TV show Criminal Minds. You could easily see this plot in an episode of that show. The sequences with Andrea and the kidnapped girls are well-done, generating the sort of suspense that a good serial killer thriller should provide. The motive of the abductor is slowly revealed as the novel progresses, and it was a nice change from what you normally find in crime fiction.

The other big problem is the subplot involving The Player. Having another serial killer lurking around the fringes just detracts from the main story. It's only really around so that Webb can set up the events of the next novel. That's a bit of a problem if you're not totally captivated by the current story and don't plan on getting the next novel. But I'm getting off course here.

Jess and Dan's rocky romantic past just took up too much focus for my liking. Even though there are five women missing, and events are getting crucial as the story speeds towards its conclusion, it stops dead in its tracks so that Jess and Dan can have their Big Moment. A long, seemingly never-ending bicker about who was to blame for their relationship failing. Even though Jess keeps saying throughout the story: "we have to find these girls!" she spends an awful lot of time arguing with Dan or having gooey romantic fantasies about him. Tiresome.

It's not awful. It's a romantic suspense novel. Not a thriller. That should let you know whether you want to read it or not. Kind of like a Harlequin Mills & Boon novel with a bit of Criminal Minds thrown in, Obsession won't have me tracking down the follow-ups, but it was a diverting read.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

"The Sixth Soul" by Mark Roberts

Detective Chief Inspector David Rosen is the head of the team dedicated to tracking down a serial killer dubbed "Herod". He likes to abduct pregnant women, and then remove the foetus and dump the body. When another woman is abducted, the pressure mounts.

Rosen is contacted by Father Sebastian Flint, who believes that the current killer is recreating the murders of Alessio Capaneus, who believed that he could revive Satan through gathering the souls of six "untainted" people - i.e an unborn foetus. The latest woman abducted is the fifth, which means that the killer is getting closer to obtaining his goal.

Flint refers to a document known as the "anti-bible", which could provide a solution to the slayings. But just how much does he know and how involved is he? And should Rosen worry about the fact that his wife Sarah has just discovered that she is pregnant?

I don't think there was an original thought, let alone an original sentence, to be found within the pages of "The Sixth Soul", but surprisingly it doesn't mean you should avoid the novel. Events move at a decent pace, and it doesn't suffer the long, drawn-out, waiting-for-lab-results issues that affect most crime novels, or police procedures.

Most notably, this is highly clichéd. The lead detective has a tortured past and a wife/girlfriend who just happens to fit into the killer's modus operandi. He has a boss who seems to want his head. He has an underling who desperately wants to undermine him. So there are a lot of police-force politics as this winds its way to the solution.

 But I did enjoy the novel. Despite its drawbacks, it was tightly-plotted, well-paced and drew me in. If it weren't so bogged down by clichés, it could have been a real winner.

"Unseen" by Karin Slaughter

Will Trent is undercover trying to get the goods on a master criminal called Big Whitey. His way in is through posing as an ex-con and making friends with low-life criminal Tony Dell. They both have jobs at the hospital.

Complicating things is Lena Adams, who is now a police officer in Macon, and is recovering from a recent botched raid to capture notorious killer and rapist Sid Waller, who also has possible ties to the elusive Big Whitey.

Will wants to keep his assignment secret from his girlfriend Sara Linton, because his case will inevitably lead him to become involved with Lena. Anyone who's familiar with Slaughter's novels will know that Sara holds Lena responsible for the death of her husband, Jeffrey Tolliver.

When Lena and her husband Jared Long are the victim of a shooting which leaves Jared - the son of Jeffrey - clinging to life, Will must figure out what happened during that raid that may have led to Lena and Jared becoming targets. He must also figure out if Big Whitey really is the head of a criminal organisation, or just an urban legend.

The fact that I am a long-time reader of Karin Slaughter's novels went a long way towards me forgiving the fact that is largely a dull, under-plotted thriller. Can we please move away from gangs and the like? Please? Please, please, please? It just doesn't generate the tension you would otherwise get if Will, Sara and company are tracking down a dangerous killer. Here, it's mostly just a hunt for the elusive head of a criminal organisation who has his hand in every criminal enterprise.

Another tiresome aspect is how Will hides this investigation from Sara because of Lena's involvement. Sara thinks that Lena is poison to everything she touches. Then we get Lena's point of view, where she comes across these days as fairly together and with-it. I began to get confused as to which side I was on. Did I side with Sara, who is ostensibly one of the main characters to feature in all of Slaughter's novels? Or did I side with Lena, who is clearly out of her depth in a situation in which she has no idea if she's somehow responsible for the mess that follows?

A lot of time in "Unseen" is spent on the relationships between the characters. And I mean a lot. Here, plot seems largely secondary. I've been a huge fan of Slaughter for over 10 years, so it was easier for me to overlook the many things wrong with this novel. If this was the first novel you read by Slaughter, you'd probably never read another book by her again. While there are one or two halfway decent twists, the plot is thin and not very compelling.

I'm hoping that "Unseen" signals a final move away from Lena and her legacy. A move away from Jeffrey Tolliver and his legacy. Start fresh with Will, Sara and Faith (who is underused here). Or if Lena has to be around, create something new for her to cause friction. Or just resolve it entirely. Lena seems to have her 'crap' together. Let's keep it that way. Let's hope that the next Slaughter offering has the tight plotting and taut suspense that we expect from her.