Before You Read Before the Fall

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You know how you read a book and you really don’t like it but you can’t decide what it is exactly you don’t like? The prior sentence is written in second person plural, a particular point of view rarely used in novels because it can be annoying to the reader and ineffective in conveying a story.

Point of view (POV) is one of the most important techniques a writer employs to tell a story. A skilled writer applies critical analysis and thought when choosing the best perspective so it serves the characters and the story. When a writer chooses the wrong or weakest viewpoint to tell a story, the story fails; fails to engage, fails to satisfy, fails to evince the realization of the writer’s inspiration.

Noah Hawley’s Before the Fall suffers from the worst choice for POV, enlisting an omniscient voice to tell the story of what happens when a private airplane belonging to a wealthy media mogul crashes in the Atlantic shortly after takeoff, killing all aboard except for one man and the mogul’s four-year-old son. Scott, a long-distance swimmer, hauls little JJ on his back and swims fourteen miles back to shore, becoming a hero and then a suspect when the reason for the crash comes under scrutiny.

Why the plane crashed is the central mystery of the 390-page book. Each of the nine dead passengers’ stories comes to life,  their chapters alternating with chapters about Scott and JJ navigating the after-disaster media attention and fame.

And here is where the omniscient POV proves a poor choice: First, in every chapter the reader is subjected to the thoughts of all the characters as scenes play out. This proves difficult because the reader doesn’t know with whom to place allegiance–all characters are treated as equally important, even though they aren’t. It is confusing and makes the reader feel uneasy and adrift.

Second, the natural result of “head-hopping” is skating on the surface of the action instead of delving into any meaning or depth. In separate chapters devoted to each of the nine dead passengers, Hawley reverts to telling about  their lives, details their backstories ad nauseum, and trying (but failing) to gin up some kind of suspense about reasons any of them might have had to cause the plane to crash. These chapters–and most of the book–read like a script treatment, and perhaps the book resulted from an idea Hawley had for TV or a movie (Or maybe it’s the other way around: he wrote the book hoping to sell it for screen rights.)

Third, where is the editor? How does this book pass muster when submitted to the publishing company? Hawley’s jacket copy shows he has written feature films, several TV series, and four novels. Does that mean he doesn’t need editing?

When a book this amateurish is nominated for an Edgar Award in the Best Book category, the question again arises about the process Mystery Writers of America uses to screen potential nominees and the criteria they apply.

On a scale of one to ten, I rate this book a one.

Hurt Me Some More

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Excitement attended my cracking open the first novel in the next category–Best Novel–nominated for an Edgar Award from Mystery Writers of America: Reed Farrel Coleman’s Where it Hurts. I’m a recent convert to Coleman’s fan club after plowing through half of his Moe Prager series (the other half are stacked up on my night table to devour after the Edgars are announced on April 27). I’m hooked. If you’re a noir fan, Coleman’s your man, and Gus Murphy’s tale won’t disappoint.

Gus is a retired Suffolk County (Long Island) cop whose solid marriage blows apart when his twenty-year-old son, John Jr., dies suddenly from a hidden heart defect while playing basketball. Gus leaves the force and winds up driving the airport shuttle van for the Paragon hotel, where he lives in one of the rooms. Two years later, Tommy Delcamino approaches Gus to look into the recent murder of TJ (his son), because the cops are treating him like the two-bit criminal he is and blowing him off. Gus agrees, not because the two men both have dead sons in common, but because his cop sense is piqued by the investigating detectives’ hands-off behavior. And Gus is desperate to get out from under the deep depression he’s been in since his world fell apart. Gus is quickly swept into a morass of conficting stories and discovers a drug deal reaching from the past that impacts directly on the current investigation. No spoiler alerts here because I don’t want to give away any more of the story.

Suffice it to say the reader is in Coleman’s strong, competent hands upon entering Gus Murphy’s world; the place is gritty, the violence graphic, and the plot deep and satisfying. RFC has total control of the story, understands how to ratchet the pacing so the pages keep turning, and delivers justice in the end.

But the most important feature of the novel is Coleman’s rendering of the emotional lives of his characters. Gus is a broken man, grieving without let-up, the pain making him unable to relate to his ex-wife or daughter. His journey to find TJ’s killer (and Tommy D’s killer, too, as it turns out) brings him back to some semblance of normalcy, but the story doesn’t get tied up in a neat bow–his son’s death has changed him permanently. Other characters in the book are equally wrought and memorable: Gus’s ex-wife is sexy, feisty, and as devastated by grief as Gus. There is also a priest who has lost his faith but comforts Gus, and two different women who hook up with Gus but don’t make the hurt magically go away.  My favorite character is Slava, another worker at the Paragon, who assists Gus in surprising ways yet intrigues the reader by hinting at a mysterious background that is never explained (I expect we’ll see him again).

On a scale of one to ten, I rate this novel a 9!

 

Twilight’s All Right

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Tyler Dilts’ Come Twilight is the sixth and final nominee for review in the Best Paperback Original category up for an Edgar Award from Mystery Writers of America. Danny Beckett makes his fourth appearance in the Long Beach series as a homicide detective who has lost much to violence: his father when Danny was a boy; his wife Megan when they were still newlyweds; and his physical health, resulting in chronic pain stemming from an earlier accident.

The book opens with Danny having to leave his new girlfriend Julia’s place (they were binge-watching Downton Abbey) to respond to an apparent suicide–suicide quickly becomes murder when Danny discovers the right-handed victim, William Denkins, has a GSW in his left temple and a gun in his left hand. Denkins is the owner/manager of the apartment building where he’s found dead, and Danny and his partner Jen line up several possible suspects, one of whom is a guy with the alias Maru who lives in the building. Problem is, Maru is missing. Another possible suspect is Denkins’ son-in-law Joe, who has several failed business ventures to his credit and money owed to his father-in-law. Complications ensue: Maru is found dead; Danny’s car–sans Danny–explodes from a car bomb; and Danny is kidnapped, beaten, and threatened by a mystery man. Dilts keeps the pages turning and the pressure mounts to solve these various threads.

Danny is a likeable character who eschews hipsters (although girlfriend Julia seems to be of that ilk–a photographer with a social service past) and exhibits the common adrenaline-infused intensity of mystery novel cops wrestling with a difficult case. When Danny’s boss takes him off the case because the car bomb and his kidnapping begin to have links to the Denkins case, Danny strains at the leash. His partner Jen is pissed at him for not following orders and everyone around him thinks he’s acting weird. But as is often the case, Danny finds the piece of information to knit the disparate threads and the ending satisifies. Somewhat.

A few criticisms of the writing include an irritating change in point of view when Danny is kidnapped and knocked unconscious, and the reader is taken through the following scenes as a flashback told by Danny from Jen’s point of view. Awkward.  There is also the matter of many, many pop references which will probably not stand up to the test of time. And not to put too fine a point on it, Dilts borders on questionable product placement (one wonders whether he’s being paid to advertise) when he repeatedly mentions specific podcasts that Danny listens to. Annoying. (Also, a minor quibble but a puzzling one: the names of the chapters don’t seem to correspond to anything in the chapter. Are they names of songs? Not clear).

Otherwise, the book is an enjoyable read, enough so that it seems probable the Danny Beckett series will continue with future offerings. On a scale of one to ten, this book rates a five.

The six novels reviewed and rated for Best Paperback Original:

  • Rain Dogs (8)
  • A Brilliant Death (6)
  • Come Twilight (5)
  • Heart of Stone/Shot in Detroit tied (4)
  • The 7th Canon (2)

My prediction (and I’m in good company with my writing pal Karen Burgess http://www.litlunchbox.com) for the Edgar Award in the Best Paperback Original Category will be Rain Dogs by Adrian McKinty. The Edgars will be announced on April 27th.

Stoned Out of my Mind

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James W. Ziskin’s Heart of Stone is the next entry nominated in the Best Original Paperback category for an Edgar Award, Mystery Writers of America’s annual event. Ziskin has won a “Lefty” award from Left Coast Crime in 2016 and an Anthony Award nomination in 2015 for two previous efforts in his Ellie Stone series, so out of four novels in one series, he has garnered much attention.

I wish I could be as enthusiastic as the awards committees.

Ellie Stone can be categorized as an amateur sleuth/cozy mystery. I’m a fan of certain cozy writers (Mary Daheim, Diane Mott Davidson), but in general find the genre tedious and bordering on boring. Heart of Stone does not encourage me to read the three earlier offerings in the series. The time is 1961, Prospector Lake, NY. Ellie is a reporter vacationing for a week with her aunt and cousin in a summer compound of cabins she, her now-deceased brother, and parents frequented in her childhood. Ellie meets up with a group of Jewish adults staying at Arcadia Lodge that she knew and played with every summer when they were children. She is immediately smitten and (shock!) sleeps with Isaac, a handsome music teacher. Ellie and the group congregate each evening for lively discussion, musical interludes, and drinking–lots of drinking (oh, and smoking cigarettes too).

On the first day of Ellie’s vacation, she and her aunt are interrupted in their sunbathing by Tiny Terwilliger, the town Chief of Police, who is everything one would expect of a racist, homophobic stereotype guy leering at two women, one nude, one in a bathing suit. Tiny manages to offend the two Jewish women, but is able to persuade Ellie to accompany him with her camera to take photos of two people who have died, ostensibly from diving into water from a nearby cliff but not clearing the rocks below. Ellie’s reporter curiosity kicks in, she and Tiny go to the accident scene and she photographs the bodies of a teenage boy and an older man. Tiny’s convinced it’s a simple accident, but Ellie thinks there’s more to it and begins to investigate.

Turns out that the older man is Karl Marx Merkleson, another childhood friend of the Arcadia group, who changed his name to Charles Morton, married a shiksa, threw away his Jewish name and got baptized. No one knows why he’s back in New York from his home in California, where he’s a big-shot movie producer. Ellie continues to unravel threads that puzzle her about the two deaths, playing the grudging assistant to the anti-Semitic Tiny. There is a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing, questioning of various characters, and a bit of tacked-on manufactured fear with an escaped murderer supposedly somewhere in the area. Ellie eventually figures it all out after many rainy trips back and forth through a small copse of woods in the dark of night between her cabin and Isaac’s. Scary stuff.

Objections to the story are several: Too many characters by far to keep track of and none of them compelling enough to stand out; the plot drags on mercilessly; and while Ziskin’s writing is strong when placing the reader in the Adirondacks, Ellie’s inner thoughts are often over-wrought and oddly objective in tone. Here’s an example when Ellie and Isaac are lying together in bed:

All people have a smell. It’s part of what attracts us to and repels us from one another….The hedonic intoxication of the senses that defies logic and explanation….Attraction is visceral. It’s an animalistic reaction that has nothing to do with the faculties of the mind.

Gee, how romantic. On a scale of one to ten, I rate this novel a four.

Sean Duffy we love ya

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Next up for review is Rain Dogs by Adrian McKinty, nominated for an Edgar Award by Mystery Writers of America in the Best Original Paperback category. The fifth offering in his Sean Duffy series, McKinty hooks the reader immediately in the opening scene: Duffy works crowd control upon the arrival of Muhammad Ali in Belfast in 1987. (This scene is loosely based on an actual trip Ali made to County Clare in 2005 to visit the home of his great-grandfather, Abe Grady.) Duffy arrives home to find his girlfriend Beth has packed her bags. She KO’s him with the announcement she’s moving out, that they are over, it was fun, but well, there’s ten years difference in their ages and can’t they still be friends? She leaves the next day.

When Duffy investigates a report that a tourist from a Finnish delegation has had his wallet stolen, he meets Lily Bigelow, a reporter staying in the same hotel as the Finns. She’s hovering in the hallway hoping for a story. Duffy senses a possible date with Lily and they exchange information. But Lily turns up dead the next day after following the Finnish group on a tour of Carrickfergus Castle. Lily’s death is ruled a suicide. Clarke Underhill, the castle caretaker, presents Duffy with a locked room puzzle: the castle has only one entrance/exit, Underhill inspected the castle top to bottom at close of business making sure it was empty, inspected it again prior to opening in the morning, so no one could’ve hidden inside (and no, there are no tunnels, secret rooms, or places to hide). Yet Lily is found dead within, seemingly after jumping from a castle wall.

Duffy, ably assisted by Detective constables “Crabbie” McCrabban and Alex Lawson, sets out to solve the second locked room murder in his career (highly statistically improbable). The story takes place during the Troubles, and sure enough, pipe bombs under policemen’s cars are part of the sad setting, as well as low employment, and lots and lots of rain. But Duffy is an immensely likeable character because even though he’s been jilted, has a puzzle impossible to solve, drinks and smokes legal and illegal substances overly much, he is funny. He sees the absurdities in his own life and others. He’s sensitive. He adopts Lily’s cat. He’s approaching 40 with an eye to his single status.

McKinty is a wonderful writer, succinct in his descriptions, a deft hand in pacing, and both subtle and silly in his humor. One minor drawback is a myriad of references to people and places obviously well-known to Irish readers but often mystifying to us on this side of the pond. But ’tis a quibble. The locked room puzzle has a satisfying solve and we bid farewell to Duffy in a nicely-set-up ending that leaves us hankering for number six in the series, which I hear has just been published.

On a scale of one to ten, I rate this an eight.

 

The Thrill is Gone

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Robert Dugoni’s The 7th Canon is the next nominee in the Best Original Paperback category for Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Awards. The title evokes this tenet: A lawyer should represent a client zealously within the bounds of law. Peter Donley, a young defense attorney, takes this canon to heart. When his uncle and boss, seasoned lawyer Lou Giantelli, is hospitalized, Donley must shoulder representing a priest who runs a homeless shelter and has been accused of murdering one of its young men. There is plenty of incriminating evidence found by a intense (read crazed) cop, but Father Martin claims innocence and would prefer to take a gamble on being tried and sentenced to death rather than admitting guilt and doing time. Donley’s only choice is to find out who really killed Andrew Bennett, and the game’s afoot.

Donley does the best he can and is ably assisted by retired cop, Frank Ross. There are some twists and turns involving a state senator and his creepy father, who try to influence the case against the priest (with predictable results regarding why). There is plenty of backstory regarding violent fathers and their effect on the sons, and there are many characters filling out this “thriller.” In fact, the opening chapters of the story introduce so many characters I had a hard time keeping them all straight and had to continually page back to recall the names and the occupations.

Trouble is, I found none of the characters compelling nor did I care about what would happen to them. The story itself was not remotely thrilling or suspenseful. Dugoni’s writing style does little to recommend him. Here are a couple of examples of an irritating habit of explaining a character’s dialogue:

“How are things at the office?” Like most lawyers, Lou needed to know what was happening at work. 

“The back steps will be a problem,” she said. They were narrow and steep.

Dugoni also has a loose grip on point of view, switching among several characters, which doesn’t cue the reader about the character’s importance nor does it allow the reader to feel invested in championing the protagonist. Most of the characters presented are stock and two-dimensional (the crazed cop, the crooked politician, the honest priest, the rookie lawyer with a secret) and forgettable. This kind of book serves a purpose (something to consume while on a long flight?), but does not belong on the short list for a prestigious award.

On a scale of one to ten, I rate this book a two.

 

Mediocre Motor City

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After the title page of Patricia Abbott’s Shot in Detroit, the novel’s synopsis describes the story as  “A riveting novel of psychological suspense….” Hmm. Riveting. As in completely engrossing? Not so much. Suspense? Not the gotta stay up all night to find out what happens next kind. Perhaps a better description would be a novel with an interesting premise, somewhat intriguing characters and a few psychological turns.

Violet Hart is a freelance photographer with low self-esteem, nearing her 40th birthday, and looking for a way to pump up her sagging professional résumé. Her most recent photo exhibit (Detroit apartment buildings in various states of implosion) fails and is cancelled. Ted, the art show curator, stops by Vi’s place to give her the bad news, but only after a quickie in Vi’s bedroom replete with a large and heavy mirror hung on the ceiling. Chekov aficionados take note!

Vi finds a new topic for artistic photographic exploration when her lover Bill, an African-American mortician, asks Vi to take a photo of a deceased young man whose overseas family wants a keepsake because they cannot attend the funeral. In shooting the photo, Vi is impressed with Bill’s expertise and artistry in dressing and prepping his deceased customers. Voila, the idea blooms for a new exhibit featuring African-American males from Bill’s funeral home.

(SPOILER ALERT) The rest of the story plays out around the waxing and waning of Vi and Bill’s affair, Vi’s artistic musings about photographing dead people, and her short and strange friendship with aspiring performance artist Derek whom she meets on Belle Isle. Derek’s murder is the only mystery in the story, which happens half-way through the book (Vi is briefly considered a suspect and the killer is caught). This sub-plot seems tacked on, (an editor’s after-thought?) in order to give the novel more “suspense.”

But the most glaring and hard to accept odd turn of events in the book occurs when Bill, reclining in bed post-coitus, is instantly killed when that pendulous mirror on the ceiling heeds gravity. Vi, upon rushing into the bedroom and discovering his lifeless body, picks up her camera, PUTS MAKEUP ON HIM, and then photographs him. I threw the book across the room. Later Vi explains her behavior with the time-worn I was in shock, even though during the scene there is nothing to indicate this is the case.

Vi is a flawed and yes I’ll say it, unlikeable, character. One of her most annoying habits is her constant questions to herself about what she’s doing or thinking or saying. Her relentless insecurity calls to mind a woman who is in her late teens or maybe early twenties, not someone on the cusp of 40. Perhaps this is supposed to be a character study about a woman who is a loser on many levels, and if so, the author succeeds. Vi suffers for her art, but more than anything she never seems to get anywhere (although her dead men photos exhibit is a hit, which seems fitting since it’s creepy and her exploitation of them is something she questions over and over). Abbott leaves the reader wondering if a truly unlikeable character can be considered a protagonist and if so, she opens up a new field of inquiry for fiction writers.

On a scale of one to ten, I rate this book a four.

 

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