Criminal Pursuits #1

Over the course of the summer I deviated from my usual practice of reading horror(ish)books for review and read some crime/thriller titles for fun, only I’m now going to review them on here because, to paraphrase that Socrates guy, as channelled by the Plato dude, the unreviewed book is not worth reading.

Something like that.

Twisted by Jonathan Kellerman

This is my twenty second book by Kellerman, which I guess makes him my ‘most read’ thriller author. Kellerman is a child psychologist, as is his main series hero Dr Alex Delaware. Dr D is the US equivalent of Cracker‘s Fitz, by which I mean he isn’t overweight, does judo and wears designer clothes, has a luxury house in the Hollywood hills, complete with koi pond, a beautiful and talented girlfriend, plus loyal dog called Spike. He consults with the LAPD in general, and gay detective Milo Sturgis in particular, frequently ending up in danger as a result. When I first started reading Kellerman there was a certain freshness to his work, with a topicality to the books as he delved into such things as paedophile rings, school bombers, religious cults and mercy killing, almost as if the writer checked out what was trending on the daily news and then took it from there. Now, alas, I’ve grown weary of writerly traits that I was once oblivious to, such as his habit of describing the clothes of every single character who appears, and I guess I’m at the point where Kellerman isn’t challenging or disturbing any more, but has become comfort reading (albeit with lots of dead bodies). The stories are as slick as ever, but no longer essential reading for me, with the attendant desire to rush out and buy each new release as soon as it hits the shelves (e.g. Twisted was out in 2005, but I’ve only just got round to it).

Twisted is not a Delaware book. The protagonist is LAPD detective Petra Connor, previously seen in Billy Straight and guesting in some of the Delaware novels. Petra is your typical fictional female detective – good looking, professional, put upon by her immediate superior, beset by relationship problems. There are two strands to the story. The secondary strand has Petra and others assigned to a task force to investigate a drive by shooting that took the lives of three youngsters outside a club. The main strand sees boy genius Isaac Gomez (an intern Petra has been given to ‘babysit’ for her sins) finding a link between a series of murders that have all taken place on the same day over a period of years, and although she thinks this is all fairly insubstantial Petra grudgingly agrees to check it out on the quiet (her superior would not like her opening these old cases). In both investigations she is assisted by her intelligence operative boyfriend, who is learning to express his emotions, while Isaac has to cope not only with his hots for Petra (he’s a teenager, and she is a woman other than his mother) but peer pressure from the gangs that rule his neighbourhood.

It was, unfortunately, all rather so so, well written and intriguing enough to catch the attention, but never really coming alive, just a professional writer going through the motions. The drive by killings give rise to plenty of good, solid police procedural work, but are then solved by one of the suspects simply telling the police what happened and why, after which it’s up to Petra and boyfriend to catch the bad guy while the task force are dicking around. The serial killer stuff, which appears to involve victims chosen totally at random, presents another red herring before the real culprit is revealed and, somewhat incredibly, his motivation turns out to be a book about another killer, whose crimes he is using as a template. Meh! Contrived is the word I am groping for, and the outcome to neither investigation was particularly satisfying. A pass the time book, one that didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know already, or at least suspect, about the lives of police detectives, and whose mysteries were always too tenuous and artificial to grab the imagination or disturb. Yep, comfort reading.

Darkhouse by Alex Barclay

Barclay’s first novel, and the only one I’ve read by her. It got a lot of good press on release, but I wasn’t won over. NYPD detective Joe Lucchesi is involved in a kidnapping case that goes disastrously wrong when the abductor opts to detonate a bomb instead of coming peacefully. Joe, with his wife and son, temporarily relocate to a quiet village in Ireland, but then one of the locals, a young girl who was seeing Joe’s son Shaun goes missing, eventually turning up dead. The Irish police are out of their depth, and with Shaun as a suspect help from Joe is the last thing they want. Slowly as the story unfolds, events set in the past in Texas intercut with the main narrative, Joe comes to realise that he is the real target of the killer.

I have mixed feelings about this. Initially I was won over by the Lucchesi family and their casual banter at the breakfast table, and the depiction of an amiable Irish coastal community, but as the story progressed it all grew a bit stale. The big problem here is that Barclay sets herself up to fail by starting with a bang. In the opening scene a mother and her child are blown to smithereens, and so whatever comes after is going to be an anti-climax. The killer torments Joe with mind games, tortures wife Anna, murders young women, but we’ve already seen the worst that the book has to offer. And to make it work, Barclay has to introduce an element of artificiality: the plot would fall apart if the members of this close knit family actually sat down and talked to each other. Joe becomes this tight lipped macho man, who keeps things to himself and makes life changing decisions without consulting anyone else. Shaun keeps quiet about what took place between himself and Katie, even though the girl he’s supposed to love dearly could be in mortal danger (he’s a horny teenager, but that doesn’t make him an idiot). And, of course, the Irish policeman who is generally obnoxious and buggering up the investigation, turns out to be crooked (Didn’t see that one coming. Much.) On the plus side, I did rather enjoy the killer’s back story, and the end game with Joe held my attention. Overall though, it was somewhat of a disappointment.

More crime/thriller stuff later. So who do the rest of you like in this genre? Cate has already expressed her admiration for Mr Coben. Anyone else?

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2 Responses to Criminal Pursuits #1

  1. I guess my two favorites are Cornell Woolrich (also known as William Irish) and Charles Williams. Both had what I’d call an authentic noir atmosphere to their work — greed, sex, desperation and disillusion (and both, I realize now as I type this, had rather unhappy lives, at least near the end: Williams committed suicide a while after his wife died of cancer, and Woolrich, if I remember correctly, had a leg amputated, whereupon he slowly drank himself to death.)

    I’d also recommend James Cain, especially Serenade.

    • petertennant says:

      I’ve heard both Williams and Woolrich commended highly, but don’t think I’ve read anything by either, though I have seen some adaptations of the latter’s short stories.

      Love Cain though. Read an omnibus of his work a few years back – “Mildred Pierce”, “Double Indemnity”, “The Postman Always Knocks Twice”. Lovely clipped prose and seedy characters.

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