The One Sentence Summary: An inquisitive ER nurse is pulled into the hunt for a murderer when she finds a dead body at her son’s soccer game.
The MeatThe One Sentence Summary: An inquisitive ER nurse is pulled into the hunt for a murderer when she finds a dead body at her son’s soccer game.
The Meat and Potatoes: Death in a Red Canvas Chair is Granger’s first novel, a basic murder mystery, told in the first person limited, from the perspective of Rhe Brewster, an ER nurse with a flair for investigation. The story begins with the main character finding the dead body propped up in a folding spectator chair at her son’s soccer game. As the discoverer of the body, Rhe is involved in the investigation from the start, but her naturally curious nature (as well as the fact that her brother-in-law is the town’s Sheriff) quickly lands her a job working the case as an official consultant. When the body is identified as a local college girl, Rhe begins to find a lot of students at the college are spending suspicious amounts of money, with no way to account for it. Everyone seems to have something to hide, so Rhe keeps digging. And then there are threats on her life…
The novel takes place in Pequod, a fictional small town in coastal Maine. Granger does a good job of setting the scene for us, so even those who’ve never been to Maine can practically smell the salty sea air. Although she may give a bit too much technical information about sailing, the level of detail contributes to the novel’s realism.
Rhe Brewster is an interesting and engaging character. She’s a likeable wife/mother/ER nurse, though she may be too perfect. Her one flaw—she’s nosy. I could have said “inquisitive” again, but there are definitely times in the story when her behavior is a step beyond. Rhe even trespasses on private property to learn more about the things she finds suspicious, which, though just illegal for a police consultant, would be unconstitutional for an officer. I suppose it wasn’t just her zeal for investigation that I found tiresome, but that she seemed motivated more by a desire to “know it all” rather than to solve the case.
The Praiseworthy: Death in a Red Canvas Chair is an intriguing mystery with an interesting angle. The story moves at a brisk pace, and keeps the reader’s attention. Overall, this is a good first novel.
The Shortcomings: There are just a few things about the writing that I have to pick on: the dialogue is quite wooden, and the author misuses the subjunctive mood several times. But that’s just me being picky. A bigger problem though is that a significant chunk of the mystery is explained to the reader after the fact, in dialogue. “So it turns out so and so did this, and it was really so and so who did that” isn’t the most interesting way to resolve the story.
The Verdict: I would recommend Death in a Red Canvas Chair to readers who enjoy murder mysteries with engaging characters, in interesting settings. ...more
The One Sentence Summary: A struggling ex-convict flees from New York City to Shanghai after a robbery gone wrong; twelve years later his new life isThe One Sentence Summary: A struggling ex-convict flees from New York City to Shanghai after a robbery gone wrong; twelve years later his new life is threatened when his past comes after him.
The Meat and Potatoes: Brendan Lavin is an ex-con, a wheel man for a group of robbers, struggling to go straight. With the threat of his overdue rent and his failing business, he agrees to join in on another robbery. In the bloody aftermath of what was supposed to be an easy score, he flees to Shanghai to start fresh. Twelve years later he has a wife, daughter, and thriving bakery. But as he always feared, his old crew shows up, threatening to destroy everything if he doesn’t agree to one last job.
Tomorrow City is unique and interesting, splitting the story between a familiar American metropolis and a burgeoning Chinese city that most readers have never experienced. The details of the city and people of Shanghai were the strength of the novel, and kept me engaged.
The story moves quickly, but at only 200 pages, seems to end just as the reader is really becoming interested. The character of Brendan is likeable and sympathetic, a good guy who has made some mistakes and is now trying to live right; but the character could have benefited from more time spent on his background to help the readers better understand his motivations.
The Praiseworthy: Tomorrow City has a few gems hidden inside an otherwise mediocre tale. A few carefully placed details, especially when describing Shanghai and the people, do a good job of bringing the setting to life for us—“[the apartment was] hidden within the high walls topped with barb wire and shards of broken glass” (p. 54); “the weak sun was struggling to shine through a thick blanket of haze and pollution” (p. 70).
Though most of the writing is simple, visually descriptive, and told rather than shown, there were a few sentences I found impressive. A few of my favorites:
“In his dreams, he found himself running, and when he looked back to see what was chasing him, he saw Ducie smiling a blood-soaked grin.” (p.65). This sentence, a standalone paragraph, is a short, simple, to-the-point way of showing Brendan’s state of mind.
“Mold and grime covered the walls in Rorschach patterns: one looked like a crude map of Russia, and another looked like a horse’s head.” (p. 156). This is a nice detail that helps us see the room—and even smell it—without lengthy description.
“Hope was a powerful force—or was it denial? he wondered. And when it all came down to it, weren’t they more or less the same thing? Weren’t they both the decision to wait rather than the decision to act?” (p. 162). I thought this was an interesting and well-expressed insight.
The Shortcomings: My biggest complaint about Tomorrow City is simply the writing. Kjeldsen makes a lot common errors. He often uses unnecessary words (example: “he ended up spilling so much milk” instead of “he spilled so much milk”; “over by” instead of just “by,” “pulling out” instead of “pulling,” “taking down,” instead of “taking”). In a novel as short as Tomorrow City, I would have expected better economy of phrasing.
Repetition was another failure. Kjeldsen repeated descriptions, words, and sentence structure. In one paragraph he describes a character as “built like a power forward,” only a few sentences later to describe another as “built like a linebacker” (p. 25); twice in four sentences a character “pistol-whipped him in the face” (p. 175); he refers to a character “making a sound like a cat,” and then in the next sentence “he made a sound like an inflatable mattress” (p. 185), and on that same page Kjeldsen begins three sentences in a row with “then” (“Then he…, Then nothing…, Then Sean…”) (p.185).
Kjeldsen’s bio explains that he has worked extensively in film and television, and this becomes apparent in the action scenes. The author abandons all metaphor, all imagery, and simply focuses detail-for-detail on what you would see on the screen. While keeping rapt attention in film, this quickly becomes boring on paper. And in his methodical description of the fight scenes, Kjeldsen lets his repetition intrude. In one in particular he simply goes back and forth describing what each character did (“Brendan raised his knee….Sean rolled off to his side….Brendan scrambled out.…Sean got up….Brendan sidestepped him.”) (p 164).
There are also many instances where the author tells us what happens, rather than showing it to us. The best example is on the very first page: “When he got to the bakery, Brendan realized he had forgotten his key” (p. 13). Kjeldsen could have just as easily shown this: “Stepping up to the grimy back alley entrance, Brendan thrust his hand into his pocket to find nothing but lint. ‘Not again,’ he thought, jiggling the locked doorknob.” With only a few more words, the audience is engaged.
The Verdict: I would recommend Tomorrow City to readers who enjoy crime novels with unique settings, are looking for a quick read, and aren’t bothered by elementary writing errors.
Note: Thank you to Signal 8 Press for my advance copy of Tomorrow City! ...more
The One Sentence Summary: Detective Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy of the Dublin Murder Squad is looking to rebuild his reputation on a high profile case—theThe One Sentence Summary: Detective Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy of the Dublin Murder Squad is looking to rebuild his reputation on a high profile case—the murder of a young family in their home—but nothing about the case is as simple as it seems.
The Meat and Potatoes: Mick’s philosophy about murder, drawn from years of experience, is that the victims invite whatever happens to them in almost every case. Called to a new murder scene with a rookie trainee at his side, he goes into the home of Pat and Jenny Spain, a cheap starter home inside a stalled housing development, where the family was brutally attacked, and asks what they did wrong. What he finds inside doesn’t quite add up: holes in the walls of an otherwise pristine home, video baby monitors rigged throughout the house, and an industrial animal trap in the attic. As more evidence is gathered, a number of scenarios fit: a domestic situation caused by the family’s impending bankruptcy, an obsessed stalker who preyed on the family, a jealous lover out to settle a score. But each time Mick thinks he has the answer, the picture changes.
In Broken Harbour, Tana French takes a non-narrating character from her previous novel and puts him center stage. Written in the first person, past tense, Broken Harbour is very character-focused, as with all of French’s previous work. Mick Kennedy is the star this time, and he’s all about control. Though he prides himself in being able to work the most disturbing cases without flinching, the murders at Broken Harbour begin to get to him as a result of his own tragic experience when he used to holiday there as a child. Broken Harbour contains a strong plot (the solving of the murders) with a complementary character-driven subplot (Kennedy dealing with his childhood experience there).
The Praiseworthy: Tana French’s gift in writing is the creation of characters that are so real and deep that the reader becomes emotionally involved in their story; Broken Harbour is no exception. By using the first person and limiting the perspective to Mick’s character, the reader gets not only his thoughts and insights but his hopes, his errors, and his arrogance. We come to know Kennedy in the same fuzzy way he knows himself, and we’re subject to the same blind spots he is. French spends the first half of the novel (and the investigation) setting out for us who Mick Kennedy is. Then she trips him up, and we spend the rest of the story struggling along with him, wishing he would make different decisions, and just wanting the best for him.
French doesn’t try to hide the moment where things go off the rails. In fact, she comes right out and tells us:
When I think about the Spain case, from deep inside endless nights, this is the moment I remember. Everything else, every other slip and stumble along the way, could have been redeemed. This is the one I clench tight because of how sharp it slices.
This paragraph gives us a very obvious heads-up that this scene is important, but leaves us to figure out why for ourselves. This ratchets up the tension and intrigue, and keeps us engaged.
The Shortcomings: Oddly, my favorite aspect of French’s writing is also one of the biggest shortcomings of Broken Harbour. The strength of the character-narrative is what sets her writing apart from any other crime novel. Her first three novels included strong character backstories that impacted heavily on the characters’ states of mind in the present investigation. In Broken Harbour, the subplot of Kennedy’s tragic family vacation stays in the background until well into the narrative. The first half of the novel reads very much like a straightforward crime drama. The subplot is there, but I think it could have been revealed (or hinted at) sooner, and played more of a role in the story.
Broken Harbour is a very good book—Tana French’s writing ability cannot be impugned—but in this reviewer’s opinion, her first three novels do the same things (present us with an intriguing crime, involve us emotionally with the narrator, and employ a compelling character backstory), but do them better.
The Verdict: I would recommend Broken Harbour to those who enjoy well-written character-driven crime novels, with a healthy dose of mystery and suspense. ...more
The One Sentence Summary: Anna Cameron, a Sergeant and rising star in the Glasgow police force, struggles both personally and professionally when she’The One Sentence Summary: Anna Cameron, a Sergeant and rising star in the Glasgow police force, struggles both personally and professionally when she’s transferred to head the unit where her ex works, and has to investigate a series of brutal attacks on prostitutes.
The Meat and Potatoes: Anna Cameron is a devoted police officer who excels in an arena where women have to fight to earn and keep the respect of their peers. On the first day in her new unit though she finds out she will be working with her ex-boyfriend Jamie, who is now married to Cath, the younger officer that he dumped Anna for without a word. Then an old man is killed, drawing both Anna and ex-officer Cath into the investigation. At the same time, a man is attacking and disfiguring prostitutes on Anna’s beat. Anna has to figure out how to work with her ex, navigate her way through a new and unwelcome “friendship” with his wife, and solve the cases before her while keeping her career intact.
The Twilight Time is a delightfully complex crime novel, and the above bungled synopsis doesn’t do it justice. The novel includes a number of storylines in addition to the case that must be solved: Anna and Jamie’s lingering feelings for each other, Jamie and Cath’s rocky life together in the wake of the birth of their first child and Cath’s post-partum depression, Cath’s jealousy of Anna and regret for giving up her career with the police, and Anna and Cath’s tenuous friendship, navigating an interpersonal minefield while seeking justice for an old man who they both knew through the job.
The Twilight Time is a past-tense novel written in third person close, with a point-of-view that shifts between major and minor characters. The point of view shifts are frequent, sometimes coming between sections or chapters, and sometimes right in the middle of scenes. Though generally smooth, a few of the quick transitions within scenes are less so. However, since each character has a well-defined and unique voice, it is almost always apparent when we have shifted perspective.
The characters in The Twilight Time are well-crafted and unique, and their vices abound. Campbell unites our sympathies initially with Anna, the main character who was dumped for another woman without so much as a goodbye, but then chapters later completely reverses our allegiance. Characters that seem good at the outset are revealed to be deeply flawed, and those that we initially write-off we gradually begin to identify with. These rich characters really drive the story and pull the reader in, resulting in deep emotional involvement with the characters’ lives. It may be overdone however, and in the end the reader may be so fed up with their weaknesses that all of the characters seem like terrible people.
The crime story at the heart of The Twilight Time is interesting, but isn’t revealed until a ways into the book. At first we’re presented with a series of seemingly disparate events, which by the end are proven to be interrelated. But Campbell may have waited a little too long to start drawing the connections. For most of the story it feels like all we’re doing is following the characters in their everyday lives. Still, the interactions between the characters keep the reader interested and the novel flowing until the connection between the crimes is revealed.
Karen Campbell, a former member of the Glasgow police force, writes with authority and realism. Unlike many authors who were formerly on the job though, Campbell’s story is excellently crafted and doesn’t read like a memoir.
The Praiseworthy: Campbell’s writing must be praised. This is one of the things that sets The Twilight Time apart from any other crime novel that you might pick up. Campbell tells the story with a literary flair that transcends the usual straight-forward storytelling of most crime writers. Consider the way she describes Anna’s distress at finding out Jamie has ended up married to the woman he left her for:
‘He’s married?’ How did that come out? Anna looked in the fridge for milk, cooling cheeks, concealing confusion.
‘Aye, his wife used to be in the job too.’ Derek stirred the tea. ‘You might know her. Nice lassie—Catherine. Worked here a while, then ended up at London Road.’
Her hand held fast to the milk carton. Cool and pliant, sharp squares boxing liquid. If she squeezed it, it would burst. Burst like eggs, spilling life in puddles.
So he married her.
Also, The Twilight Time includes a number of passages in well done stream-of-consciousness style. Inside the minds of the character, we see their thoughts jumping and flowing just as our own thoughts jump and flow. After dozens of books where characters’ thoughts come already well-considered and polished, it’s refreshing to find an author whose characters think the way we do.
Campbell’s use of dialect in The Twilight Time is also superb. Anyone who’s ever been to Glasgow can attest to the fact that locals have their own language, and rarely use the King’s English when speaking to each other. Campbell’s use of “no” for not, “canny” for can’t, and shifted contractions such as “I’ve not” instead of the typical “I haven’t,” root us firmly in the setting.
The Shortcomings: Other than the occasionally confusing point-of-view shift and the overdone character flaws discussed above, my only gripe with The Twilight Time would be the ending—not the conclusion, but the actual point at which the author closed the story. (view spoiler)[The final scene involves Anna walking over the River Clyde, and stopping to drop in a war medal that belonged to the murdered old man for whom Anna was seeking justice for most of the story. In my opinion this scene was overly sentimental, unnecessary, and far too reminiscent of “Titanic” to be taken seriously. There were a number of moments leading up to this that would have made an ideal end to the novel, and I think The Twilight Time would’ve finished with more punch if Campbell had chosen a different sentiment on which to close. (hide spoiler)]
The Verdict: I would recommend The Twilight Time to readers who enjoy character-driven crime stories and superb literary craft. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
The One Sentence Summary: On vacation in sunny Spain, Glasgow reporter Rosie Gilmour finds herself covering the kidnapping of a young girl, a case whoThe One Sentence Summary: On vacation in sunny Spain, Glasgow reporter Rosie Gilmour finds herself covering the kidnapping of a young girl, a case whose implications may be more far-reaching than she realizes.
The Meat and Potatoes: Vacationing in Spain after nearly being killed in Glasgow, reporter Rosie Gilmour is asked by her boss to cover the kidnapping of a three-year-old Scottish girl in Costa del Sol. As usual, Rosie gets the breaks—a young sex worker comes to her with an eyewitness account that doesn’t match the story that the mother told the police on the morning of the disappearance. With the help of her photographer, a Spanish private detective, and her Bosnian friend from Glasgow who saved her life months before, Rosie gets deep into the world of child sex trafficking. She follows her leads to Morocco where she hopes to find the missing little girl, the story, or both.
To Tell the Truth is a past-tense novel in the third person, written with a shifting point-of-view. Most often we see the story through the eyes of the main character, Rosie Gilmour, but the point-of-view also shifts to other characters at times, including the kidnapper himself. With this style, the readers know more than any one character, and follow the plot anticipating what’s to come. Unlike Anna Smith’s first novel, which takes place completely in Glasgow, Scotland, To Tell the Truth is set in Spain and Morocco, with just a couple quick sojourns up to Glasgow.
Other than the setting though, To Tell the Truth is very similar to Smith’s first novel, The Dead Won't Sleep. Both deal with crimes against children, delve into the seamy world of prostitution, have a sex worker as a key informant, and include a parallel political plot. Indeed, both novels employ many of the same plot devices, such as the informant finding him/herself in danger as a result of his/her involvement. The cast of characters is largely the same as well, including Adrian, Rosie’s Bosnian friend who saved her life in The Dead Won’t Sleep (and who, serendipitously, is in Spain, embroiled in the same scandal that Rosie’s investigating, but for a completely unrelated reason). New in this novel though is Javier, a Spanish private detective, who provides the local link to the investigation of which Rosie is an outsider.
Overall I preferred To Tell the Truth over The Dead Won’t Sleep, and think Smith did a fantastic job creating suspense and tension and building these to the climax, which lasted about forty action-packed pages.
The Praiseworthy: To Tell the Truth is a complex and well-crafted story. Smith creates many different storylines that run simultaneously ((view spoiler)[the kidnapping of the young girl, the political downfall of the Home Secretary, Adrian’s quest to find and free his sister from forced prostitution in Spain, and Rosie’s reunion with her father back in Glasgow (hide spoiler)]), weaves them together well, and manages to tie them all up in the end without it seeming contrived.
Rosie’s work as a journalist, and her uncovering of the story, are very detailed and realistic. The fact that Smith worked as a journalist for over twenty years is clear in her writing, and these real-life details create a believable main character with a very true voice.
The Shortcomings: The writing in To Tell the Truth is decent, but not great. A large part of what makes a writer great is the ability to look at the everyday and describe it in a new and refreshing way; not just to tell a story, but to tell it with a bit of poetry. In my opinion, Smith has not yet reached this level. Also, much of the backstory and characters’ thoughts and feelings are given to us in the form of extended narration or internal monologue, rather than being slipped into the story more subtly and naturally.
In addition, To Tell the Truth contains many references to the events of Smith’s first novel, some of which are quite central to the present story, without adequate summary. While I did read The Dead Won’t Sleep before To Tell the Truth, it was some months prior (as would be the case with most readers, I would think), and I found myself struggling to recall the exact details to which Smith referred on occasion. The novel would have benefited if better description of the important events from the previous book were woven into the narrative.
The Verdict: I would recommend To Tell the Truth to readers who enjoy crime stories with complex plots, a bit of political intrigue, and an international slant.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
The One Sentence Summary: An Edinburgh detective is called to investigate a murder in his childhood home on the Isle of Lewis and in doing so, has toThe One Sentence Summary: An Edinburgh detective is called to investigate a murder in his childhood home on the Isle of Lewis and in doing so, has to confront his past.
The Meat and Potatoes: Detective Fin Macleod hasn’t been back to the Isle of Lewis, where he was raised, in years. But when the mutilated body of a murder victim is found there, bearing the same post-mortem injuries as a case he’s investigating in Edinburgh, he’s sent back to investigate any possible connections. The Lewis victim was a bully from Fin’s childhood though, and everyone on the island seems to have a motive for murder. While questioning his former friends and neighbors Fin delves into his past, which may have more to do with the present murder than he realizes.
The Black House is a novel primarily written in the past tense, in third person limited point of view, from the perspective of Fin, the main character. Upon Fin’s return to the Isle of Lewis though, he’s reminded of events from his past. Often these are immediately explored in a chapter narrated by Fin in the first person. These first person explorations of the past provide good context and perspective for the characters and events in the narrative present, and help the story to unfold on multiple dimensions.
The characters that Peter May creates in The Black House are three-dimensional and interesting, and he lets their depth unfold gradually. When we’re first introduced to Fin, for example, he seems like an all-around good character, but through his revelations of the past we find many shortcomings. He does the reverse with the murder victim, Angel Macritchie, who at first is presented as an unmitigated b*stard, but then softened when we learn of the deep friendship he developed with Calum Macdonald, who was crippled by a prank of Angel’s in childhood. The only character who is exactly as she seems is Marsaili Macdonald, a sweet and fairly innocent girl whose goodness is a foil against which we see Fin’s flaws.
May’s choice of The Isle of Lewis as a setting, a dark, cold, harsh location, is perfect for a story about a murder and the recollection of tortured childhood memories. At first Lewis is described negatively, as a place that Fin was glad he was able to escape from, but through the story a respect and admiration for the land comes through. A large portion of the story also takes place on An Sgeir, a rocky island miles from Lewis where a group of hunters make a yearly pilgrimage to hunt the guga, the gannets that inhabit the island. Even more harsh and inhospitable than Lewis, An Sgeir, and the mystery of what happened there during Fin’s first trip out with the hunters, provides an added dimension to the story.
Although billed as a crime novel, the murder isn’t the main story in The Black House. Fin’s story is the true story of interest, and the crime is a vehicle to explore Fin’s past. Although there is the standard criminal investigation including a postmortem examination and the questioning of witnesses, no new light is shed on the crime through these inquiries. Slowly it is revealed that the murder has its roots in the past, and it is through the slow revelations of Fin’s childhood that the murder is ultimately solved.
The Praiseworthy: May does a fabulous job with the perspective shifts throughout the story. The transitions between the chapters in the narrative present, given in the third person, and chapters in the past, given in the first person, are natural and absolutely seamless. I make it a point to note point-of-view shifts, but I didn’t even notice the first transition because it was done so naturally.
May also excels at creating a true and realistic narrative voice. Take this sentence of narration for example: “There was still a tremor ran through me each time I took a sip from it.” In Standard English this would more properly be phrased, “A tremor still ran through me each time I took a sip,” but instead the narrator says it the way a native Gaelic speaker would, which is true to the voice of the story.
Another exceptional bit of writing comes when the mystery is solved and (view spoiler)[Fin realizes that it was his best friend from childhood, Artair, who committed the murder. Suddenly all of the pieces fall into place and he imagines the murder as if he were watching it. This imagined scenario is written as narration that intrudes upon the present scene. Here is just a snippet:
‘Fin, what is it? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.’ He looked at her without seeing her. He was in the boatshed at Port of Ness. It was Saturday night and it was dark. There were two men there. One of them was Angel Macritchie. The other one moved into the moonlight. It was Artair.
In this way we get to see the scene as it happened, without it being revealed too soon in the story. Also, we can imagine the rising tension that Fin feels as he “sees” his friend murdering a man. (hide spoiler)] The Shortcomings: The only negative that I would note is that the prologue is written completely in italics. The purpose of italics is to emphasize and set something apart from the rest of the text, but this is unnecessary for the prologue as it’s already set apart in virtue of being the prologue and designated as such. In addition, the prologue is written in the present tense, which further sets it off from the rest of the story. The italics are unnecessary and just distracting.
The Verdict: I would recommend The Black House to readers who enjoy crime novels with a strong character-driven story, psychological emphasis, and well-crafted writing. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
The One Sentence Summary: The prime suspect of a rape and mutilation from ten years earlier is found hanging in an empty tenement in Glasgow, a stringThe One Sentence Summary: The prime suspect of a rape and mutilation from ten years earlier is found hanging in an empty tenement in Glasgow, a string of similar attacks is uncovered, and an entire police squad on the brink of closure is pulled into the case.
The Meat and Potatoes: On New Year’s Eve in 2000 a young girl is attacked, raped, and severely beaten outside Glasgow, Scotland. She is able to identify one of her two attackers, but he flees the country before an arrest can be made. Ten years later he’s founded murdered—beaten in the same manner as the girl he helped violate. Then another young female victim surfaces, this one a member of a wealthy family. Soon connections to other cases begin to appear, and the detectives of Partickhill Station are left on the trail of a serial offender operating all over Scotland, who now appears to have come home.
Dark Water is a novel written in the third person, past tense, with an omniscient narrator. The story focuses on the detectives of the nearly defunct Partickhill Station in Glasgow as they try to solve the crimes, the complexity of which increase with every page. Caro Ramsay has set Dark Water in a bitterly cold winter when the city has been blanketed with thick fog that never lifts in the four days that the novel takes place. While the fog creates added mystery (since the detectives can’t see more than a few feet in any direction at any time), it’s a little hard to believe that such a heavy fog could last so long.
Other than the prologue, which follows the first victim as she’s attacked, the novel is exclusively a cop story. The only characters in Dark Water are police, forensic investigators, victims and their families, witnesses, and a small camera crew set to follow the police for PR photos, and rarely, if ever, are these other characters described outside their interactions with the police. Even the detectives are almost exclusively shown in their working lives, and we hardly get a sense of them as real people. These characters end up interchangeable in the readers' minds because we’re given very little to differentiate them, and they are almost always referred to by their last names, all of which are very generic.
Ramsay spends a lot of time building up the evidence, but fails to work it into the story with any nuance. The first half of the book describes the tedious gathering of evidence on two crimes that may or may not be related. The story picks up some pace when a task force of sorts is created and other victims are discovered across Scotland, but on the whole the novel is a slow march to ten or so pages of action, with an unsatisfying conclusion. Ramsay’s writing is technically proficient but includes nothing that makes it especially enjoyable to read.
The Praiseworthy: Interspersed through the third person narrative are short accounts written in the first person present tense, which are the thoughts and observations of a mysterious outside character. This technique helps to liven up the story and keep the reader guessing.
The Shortcomings: The plot. And the characters. The mystery that Ramsay has created is not bad, but her choice in focusing completely on the police in telling that story is a poor one. While reading Dark Water I kept confusing the characters with each other. At first I thought I was simply tired, but I came to realize it was because every character had a nearly identical personality. Similarly, I often got lost in the unattributed dialogue because all of the characters had the same voice. The only detective who stood out was DC Browne, and that was only because she was a wimpy, whiney female who even goes so far as to exclaim “I’m scared!” when walking through the fog with her partner to confront a suspect.
Another major failing is Ramsay’s excessive use of initialisms:
DS Lambie, I’d like to see you in my office. DI Anderson, can you join us please? DS Littlewood, please make sure DS Mullholland is OK; take him to hospital if necessary. DC Browne, can you clean the place up? DS Costello will help you.
Even if it’s true that the police in Glasgow always refer to each other by title, one would think Ramsay could have dropped a few of these for the sake of the narrative flow. Another problem is that Ramsay gives us these initialisms (as well as DCI, SOCO, SIO, ACC, PC, and CID*) with only context clues to determine their meanings. While the police titles may be familiar to Glasgow readers, a good writer would spell out each at least once so as not to alienate others.
The writing in Dark Water also suffers from weak transitions that do little to ground us in the new scene. For example, Ramsay starts a section about an interrogation with a description of a swinging light bulb, which could be any light bulb in any building, and adds nothing to the scene.
Ramsay’s writing is also rife with repetition. In one scene she describes a character as “sinking into a big chair as though he was thinking of taking root in it,” and just two paragraphs later mentions that he “felt himself sink deeper into the leather chair.” Later she includes a thought by the chief investigator that an officer’s actions were “strange behaviour for one so dedicated.” With a mere sentence between, another character repeats “Strange, for one so committed to the case.” Even considering that the point was for one character to speak aloud the other’s thoughts, a resourceful writer would have used different words.
The Verdict: I would recommend Dark Water only to readers who enjoy crime stories that focus exclusively on police investigations, and aren’t deterred by proficient but mediocre writing.
*For your convenience, a list of Ramsay’s unexplained initialisms and their meanings:
The One Sentence Summary: A woman who testified thirty years earlier that her brother slaughtered her entire family begins to investigate the crime afThe One Sentence Summary: A woman who testified thirty years earlier that her brother slaughtered her entire family begins to investigate the crime after doubts about her brother’s guilt begin to surface.
The Meat and Potatoes: When Libby Day was seven, her mother and two sisters were killed in their rural Kansas farmhouse, their blood used to paint satanic symbols on the walls. Ben Day, Libby’s moody fifteen-year-old brother, was convicted of the murders, largely on the basis of Libby’s testimony. Now thirty years later, the charity fund that she has been living off is nearly gone and Libby can’t bear the thought of getting a job. She’s contacted by Lyle Wirth, a young man who is president of the “Kill Club”—a group of true crime fanatics who are obsessed with finding the truth about the “Farmhouse Satan Sacrifices”—and he pays Libby to do some freelance investigating into the murders of her family. Though all her life she’s believed Ben was the culprit, Libby uncovers some inconsistencies that make her as hungry for the truth as the members of the strange club she’s become involved with.
Dark Places is written in the past tense, using first person point of view for the chapters narrated by Libby, and third person for those narrated by other characters. The story opens on Libby in the present day as she begins to investigate the murders of her family. Libby’s present day account alternates with chapters through the eyes of other characters, on the day of the murders. This combination of present and past gives us an overall picture of the crime, bit by bit. Evidence is referenced in the present chapters and then we are able to see exactly how the events unfolded, from the eyes of the characters. For example, we are told early on that both the axe and the shotgun used to murder Patty Day (Libby’s mother) and Debby Day (Libby’s sister) belonged to the Days themselves. As the past chapters progress, we see Patty load the shotgun and leave it in the front room after being threatened by Libby’s father, Runner, and that the axe is mistakenly left in the house after being used to chop wood for the fire. In alternating between the present and the past, Gillian Flynn allows us to follow the crime on multiple levels while we try to solve the mystery ourselves.
Flynn also does a great job of dropping the details subtly into the narrative. Early on in the story we’re given information on the injuries that Libby has sustained (references to her “mangled hand,” her “bad foot,” and her missing toes). We’re left wondering exactly how these injuries occurred, and it isn’t until later that it is revealed. The evidence is presented in a similar fashion. In the present day chapters we see the murders clinically, through case files, crime scene photos, and evidence that doesn’t fit with the theory of Ben as the sole perpetrator. In the present chapters we hear the evidence described, and in the past chapters we actually see the events that resulted in the evidence.
The characters Flynn has created in Dark Places are three-dimensional and realistic. Libby is not the stereotypical heroine. She plays on people’s sympathies and cashes in on being the sole survivor of a tragedy. She is lazy, mean-spirited, quick-tempered, and self-indulgent. She is also very selfish, and in fact, she has no interest in the murders until she is offered money to investigate. Libby is actually a very unlikable character, but is a realistic portrayal of someone who had to go through something so traumatic early in life. The other characters are similarly complex. Ben Day is not what you expect of the (possibly) wrongly accused. He is deeply flawed as well, and both in Libby’s present day talks with him in prison and in the past chapters narrated from his viewpoint, we can see that although he’s a generally good (albeit moody) person, he also has a darkness inside him. Even though the evidence seems to be pointing away from him, the reader continues to wonder throughout the story whether he is the killer after all. Patty Day is one of the better characters in the novel, a hard-working single Mom struggling to raise her four children and keep her farm afloat. Though her intentions are good, even Patty admits she isn’t as responsible as she should be, commenting that she doesn’t have the energy to devote to her children. She’s even relieved that Ben spends so much time alone in his room, rather than being concerned by it, because that way she doesn’t have to deal with him. Although the characters Flynn creates are not “good,” she imbues each with enough humanity that we can sympathize with them and understand their actions, even if we don’t condone them.
The Praiseworthy: Dark Places is a wonderful example of a well-crafted mystery; it gives us all the information we need to solve the crime, dropping it in subtly so that when the killer is revealed we see it, but didn’t see it coming. Flynn does this quite well; I found myself taking note of the relevant details, but was not able to put it all together until just a few pages before the climax. For example, (view spoiler)[the “Angel of Debt,” who was the murderer of Patty and Debby, is mentioned by the Kill Club in the first few chapters of the book, as a theoretical serial killer (unrelated to the murders of the Day family). (hide spoiler)] The writing in Dark Places is solid throughout, and there are many instances of great writing as well. The narration in Libby’s perspective often slips into a rambling stream-of-consciousness that is quite realistic:
But he wasn’t home when we went to bed, and when I woke up the light was on. I remember a flush of relief because Ben was home because his light was on and the fight was over between him and my mom at least for today because the light was on and he was talking behind the door, maybe on his new phone, or to himself, but the light was on.
Flynn’s writing also has a number of gems of language, constructions of words that are almost poetic in their meaning:
[Eight hundred dollars.] The figure actually made her laugh. Did the guy really think that was her pocket change? Could he not look around and see how poor they were, the kids in shirtsleeves in the middle of winter, the kitchen freezer stacked with cheap meat, each marked with a long-gone year? That’s what they were: a home past the expiration date. (emphasis added)
Dark Places also contains simple writing that strikes a chord with the reader on a deeper level; writing that one can identify with:
It was surprising that you could spend hours in the middle of the night pretending things were OK, and know in thirty seconds of daylight that that simply wasn’t so.
The Shortcomings: Because the chapters alternate between past and present, we’re often left on a cliffhanger, with issues unresolved between chapters. While many people love this style of writing, it is my personal preference to have things mostly settled chapter to chapter. However, this style bothers me most when the cliffhangers are very contrived. In Dark Places, although I remained very curious about the events unfolding at the end of each chapter, I didn’t find the carried suspense too distracting.
The Verdict: I would recommend Dark Places to readers who enjoy crime stories, and are seeking a mystery that allows them to follow the crime on a number of different levels. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
The One Sentence Summary: An Irish cop, who is also a serial killer, gets transferred to the NYPD in an exchange program and is partnered up with an uThe One Sentence Summary: An Irish cop, who is also a serial killer, gets transferred to the NYPD in an exchange program and is partnered up with an unstable cop under the thumb of the mob.
The Meat and Potatoes: Matthew Patrick O’Shea has a violent personality and dreams of more action than he can find as a member of Ireland’s police force, patrolling the streets of Galway. Less than innocently, he finagles his way into an exchange program with the United States and is assigned to New York City. Shea is partnered with Kebar (known as such for his excessive use of a k-bar in subduing criminals), an unstable cop taking bribes to keep his mentally retarded sister in a nice nursing home. His unsavory ties disgust Shea, who is determined to let no one stop him from becoming a New York City Detective. But Kebar’s sister… so gorgeous, sweet, and innocent…
After spending all day reading Once Were Cops, I find myself beginning to write with a bit of a Bruen-esque flair. That is to say, in not-quite-complete sentences, and bordering on steam-of-consciousness. Bruen has an interesting and truly refreshing writing style. The novel is presented in the past tense, varying between the first person (those sections from Shea’s perspective) and the third person omniscient. His sentences are short and clipped, and his paragraphs rarely contain more than a single fragment or sentence. For example:
Kebar said, “You wanna stop doing that, sir?” He didn’t.
This creates a fast flowing and frank narrative. Descriptions are minimalist and details are rarely given unless essential to the plot. Though unusual, Bruen uses this style well, and it comes across as very natural for the gruff, no-nonsense personalities of the characters.
Another curiosity is Bruen’s rejection of the traditional novel formatting. Instead of beginning each paragraph with a first line indent, he uses a hanging indent, separating each by a blank line. Though odd on the surface, this is a very practical decision for the short (often single line) paragraphs he employs. Rather than awkward indents on every line, indents only come in the few long paragraphs. As an aesthetic choice, it works well.
The writing in Once Were Cops is straightforward and clear. Both dialogue and thoughts are presented inside double quotation marks, and the frequent tags are used to distinguish between the two:
Lonnie thought, “Oh sweet f***.”
Kebar smiled, said, “Be seeing you.”’
Though the constant use of the dialogue tag “said” keeps us on track with which character we’re following and is consistent throughout, there were a number of times when not only could the tag have been omitted, it would have read much better if Bruen had done so. Take the following section, in which I have struck-through the unnecessary tag:
“Would you like to visit?” F***… no. I said, “Yes.”
Without the “I said,” the contrast between Shea thinking “f*** no” (which is presented as narration since his chapters are in the first person) and his answering “yes” is much more striking.
The writing in Once Were Cops is terrific and although the narration often contains run-ons, mispunctuation, and sentences that jump around with the speed of thought, it is obvious that this was by conscious decision. In employing this style, Bruen keeps us in the characters’ heads, even when the narration is in the third person.
Once Were Cops also contains subtle and delightful instances of foreshadowing:
Much as I loved Nora’s neck, and Jesus, I did, somewhere in me, I thought… no… not her, she might be my salvation.
This doesn’t tell us much about what is to come other than to give a heads up that 1) some major event is coming, and 2) the narration is being presented from some time distant to that event. I always enjoy picking up these little hints as they come along, and Bruen does a good job of giving us bits of information without overdoing it.
Bruen also surprised me by introducing a new protagonist almost halfway through the novel. (view spoiler)[ After Kebar is killed, the story needs a new foil for Shea if it is to continue. Enter Joe, an investigative reporter and the sister of Shea’s girlfriend, Nora, who ended up strangled to death in the same manner as Shea’s victims. Desperate to find out the truth of what happened to his sister, Joe investigates the crime and quickly zeroes in on Shea. In a way, Once Were Cops is split into two distinct stories: Shea’s early days patrolling with Kebar and his rise in the NYPD, and Shea’s downfall once Joe is on his trail. Neither of these stories is enough to stand on its own, but they complement each other nicely, and I wasn’t troubled by Bruen’s introduction of a third main character so late in the novel. (hide spoiler)] The Praiseworthy: As discussed above, Once Were Cops is written in a fresh and unusual style. The short paragraphs allow the reader to fly through the novel, but still allow for the insertion of the details necessary to connect with the characters. In Once Were Cops, Bruen has also created a unique and compelling story. He twists the usual cop tale by informing the reader, basically up front, that the main character is both a cop and a serial killer (we get this information in the synopsis on the back of the book, and are told that something is off with Shea in the first few pages). Within a few chapters we’re both intrigued and repulsed by Shea. The presentation of the dark side of law enforcement continues when we meet Shea’s NYPD partner, Kebar, a b*stard of a cop being paid off by organized crime. Bruen manages to incorporate flashes of humanity in even these two seemingly unredeemable characters, making the readers care about their fate and want to read on.
The Shortcomings: The ending is unsatisfying. (view spoiler)[ When Shea is set up—told that his victim has awoken from her coma and is about to be interviewed about the attack—he’s easily taken in by the lie, even though he’s supposedly the most cunning character in the novel. Although I recognized the possibility that he could be so distraught at leaving a loose end that he wasn’t thinking clearly, I didn’t find the ease with which he was deceived to be true to his character. Also, he’s billed as a calculating sociopath, and those types don’t often let emotions get the better of them. Honestly, this conclusion feels like a rushed way to tie up what was an otherwise well-crafted story.
And on a more practical note, the fact that Shea is shot and killed in the end raises a technical question: Where did his first person, past-tense reflections come from? When he thinks things like, “They’d missed the beads, stupid f***s, with all that came after, that would have proved their case… dumb b*stards.” When does he have time to reflect and narrate “all that came after,” if he is shot and killed before realizing that “the jig is up”?
The epilogue is similarly poor, in my opinion. It creates more questions than it answers, setting up a cliffhanger that is more properly suited to a television drama than the conclusion of a novel. Instead of tying up the loose ends and showing us how the characters have progressed beyond the narrative present, as is common for an epilogue, Bruen seems instead to be conveniently positioning his next novel. (hide spoiler)] The Verdict: I would recommend Once Were Cops to readers who enjoy crime stories, especially with a psychological slant, and those who aren’t distracted by unconventional formatting and writing. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
The One Sentence Summary: A young boy writes to an imprisoned serial killer, asking for help to find the body of his uncle, whose disappearance at ageThe One Sentence Summary: A young boy writes to an imprisoned serial killer, asking for help to find the body of his uncle, whose disappearance at age eleven sent the whole family awry.
The Meat and Potatoes: Twelve-year-old Steven Lamb has a troubled home life. His father left when he was young; his Nan stands at the window all day waiting for her son Billy, who disappeared in childhood; and Steven’s mother, upset over being ignored after the disappearance of her brother, takes out her frustrations on her children with the same coldness and bitterness that her mother showed her. Steven thinks that if he can just find the bones of his Uncle Billy, his whole family would be fixed. After years of aimlessly digging holes where Arnold Avery, Billy’s suspected killer, had buried his other victims, he writes to the killer in prison. “I am looking for WP. Can you help me?” This simple request opens the door, and Steven soon finds out that, much worse than obsessing over a serial killer, is the serial killer obsessing over you.
Blacklands is both a crime novel and an exploration into the after-effects of a violent crime on the family left behind. Bauer spends as much time delving into the psychological state of the family as she does setting up the ultimate showdown between Steven and the killer. Even though it is written in the third person omniscient POV, Bauer does a fantastic job of putting us in the heads of even minor characters.
Blacklands is set in Exmoor, England, a small rural village surrounded by wild moors, and the small-town, isolated feel really pervades the story. Bauer’s descriptions are fantastic, and you can really see, smell, and feel the landscape of the moor: the spicy scents, the prickly vegetation, the thick brambles, and the cool sea mist.
Bauer also incorporates images into the novel, which is fairly unique to the genre. Rather than just presenting the typed text of Steven’s letters to Avery we are given an image: simple notebook paper with handwriting that could either be taken as the carefully crafted print of a child, or an adult in a rush. In seeing Steven’s actual writing we get more of a feel for his character.
The Praiseworthy: Bauer’s scenes are very well thought-out and plotted. Each of them pulls its weight, often accomplishing several different objectives at once. For example, towards the beginning of the novel we are told about Steven repairing his Nan’s shopping trolley, substituting all-terrain wheels from a buggy for the rickety metal wheels. This scene leads into a reflection which ends up underscoring the whole novel (“Decide what you want and then work out how to get it”), as well as setting up subtle indicators of his Nan’s love for him, despite her coldness (she proudly shows off the heavy-duty wheels to friends and walks with it even when not shopping). Another great example of a scene that accomplishes several things at once is midway through the novel when the guards at Avery’s prison are opening the inmates’ correspondence and vetting the photographs. This scene depicts the photo of Exmoor sent by Steven slipping through, despite Avery’s therapist’s understanding that the sight of Avery’s old burial ground would be unhealthily exciting to him. At the same time, the scene shows the reader that the guards have been confiscating nude photos of another prisoner’s attractive wife, which (view spoiler)[sets up a physical confrontation between this prisoner and a guard, facilitating Avery’s escape. (hide spoiler)]
The bulk of Blacklands is what I would characterize as good writing, but there are several places where Bauer’s writing really stands out. As Steven becomes more and more obsessed with the serial killer, a photograph he sees in school of our solar system within the vast Milky Way galaxy provides an interesting opportunity to delve further into the killer’s psyche:
No wonder Arnold Avery did what he did! Why shouldn’t he? Wasn’t it he, Steven Lamb, who was the fool for caring what had happened to a single one of those microbes on a dot inside a speck of light? What was everyone getting so hot under the microbial collar about? It was Avery who saw the bigger picture; Avery who knew that the true value of human life was precisely nothing. That taking it was the same as not taking it; that conscience was just a self-imposed bar to pleasure; that suffering was so transitory that a million children might be tortured and killed in the merest blink of a cosmic eye.
And he revisits this thought when he gets lost in a sea mist on the moor:
Steven felt himself shrinking under its blind vastness. The image of the galaxy came back to him. He was an atom on a microbe on a speck on a mote on a pinprick in the middle of nowhere.
The revelations aren’t restricted to Steven’s character; the killer Avery also has some very well-crafted moments of his own:
Many years ago he had played poker. He hadn’t known what he was doing really and was nervous of losing and making a fool of himself. But it was only when he picked up a pair of aces and saw another two drop on the table that he’d started to shake. That was how he knew that the trembling that now coursed through his hands, over his shoulders and across his cheeks to his lips was a god thing. He held an unbeatable hand.
The Shortcomings: I only found one significant problem with Blacklands: Bauer has a tendency to overuse (and occasionally improperly use) dashes. At first this was just something I noticed, but as I continued through the novel it became distracting, then annoying, and then aggravating. Bauer often uses a dash when a simple comma will do: “Something chemical had been released in Avery’s brain—something that sharpened his lust and dulled his more sensible senses.” She also employs dashes in places where they are simply not necessary and could be omitted without changing the meaning of the sentence: “It was slow going and painful and—by the time he reached the stile that led him through the backs of the houses to the road—both his socks had holes in them.” She uses dashes to offset phrases that do not require the added emphasis of the dash over the comma: “He didn’t want or need their friendship but—even after eighteen years—he was still genuinely uncertain as to why some killers got respect in prison while he was vilified.” And sometimes she makes several of these errors at once; consider this sentence which contains three dashes: “The dozen guards—who just moments before—had been picking their noses in boredom, ran to help, batons flailing—like a poorly trained pub football team losing its shape because they were all chasing the ball.” Amazingly, on the page that this sentence appears (a page containing only 223 words) there were nine dashes total. Granted, not everyone will be as distracted by or even notice the abuse of dashes like I did, but it’s the kind of thing I would have expected an intrepid editor to fix.
The Verdict: I would recommend Blacklands to readers who enjoy crime novels with unique, engaging settings and a strong psychological aspect. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more