Saturday, December 27, 2008

Books Read, 2008 - Ones I Didn't Like - 2

As I've written here previously, I read a lot of mysteries. I've been a fan of the genre since I discovered the Perry Mason novels of Erle Stanley Gardner when I was fourteen.

Writing mysteries is like eating Lay's potato chips: you can't just write one. The dedicated reader of mysteries expects their favorite authors to publish a book every year, or they'll lose interest in the series and find other authors.

However, it is almost inevitable that the writer of a mystery series will grow tired of the detective who is the focal of the series, run out of interesting plots, or just plain get bored. And three of my favorite mystery writers published books this year they should not have.

I've read all of Patricia Cornwell's novels about Kay Scarpetta, a medical examiner. Cornwell's novels are known for the forensic details the author brings to the novels, as well as complex plots and an interesting group of core characters. One reads Cornwell as much for the changes in the lives of Scarpetta, her lover, an FBI profiler, her niece, a wealthy, gay computer geek, and the retired policeman who works for Scarpetta and is in love with her, something she never notices.

Book of the Dead is an unbelievably bad book. Where Cornwell almost always writes from the point-of-view of Scarpetta, in this novel she uses third person omniscient, which could be a sign that she is bored and needs a new way to tell a story. But this change in p.o.v. only confuses a boring story. She either had a deadline to meet, or she is taking her readers for granted and thinking we will like anything she writes. I’m glad I got this one on my Kindle and didn’t pay as much for it as I would've paid if I'd bought in hard cover.

Bad, bad, bad.

One of my favorite mystery authors is Archer Mayor. His series centers around a Vermont policeman named Joe Gunther, and Mayor brings a thoughtfulness and compassion to Gunther that is very different for a mystery. His latest, The Catch, like Cornwell's book, uses multiple points of view, which is a radical departure for Mayor. The strength of the series is Joe Gunther's decency, and the reason I like the novels is that I like spending time with Gunther.

In this novel the reader is taken inside the minds of the criminals as well as other policemen, but Mayor doesn't make us care about them. In addition, most of the novel takes place in Maine rather than Vermont. When writing about Vermont, where Mayor lives, he is obviously writing about what he knows. But Maine is not embedded in his psyche like Vermont is. I could tell he'd done a lot of research about Maine but I didn't get the feeling that he loves Maine. I felt I was reading his research.

The worst aspect of the book is that the reader is taken on a wild goose chase. A policeman is murdered in Vermont. Because the suspected killer is a drug dealer, the trail seems to lead to Maine. But the murder was committed by the policeman's former mother-in-law and could have been solved in the first 15 pages.

As a reader, I felt disrespected.

The third writer is Bill Moody, a jazz pianist. He does not write a book a year, and his latest, Shades of Blue is only his sixth in this series featuring Evan Horne, a jazz pianist, who finds himself in situations that involve not only having to solve a murder but also some mystery in the history of jazz.

The series is interesting because Moody writes about jazz from the inside, being a practicing musician, and his descriptions of improvisation as well as his insights into the music are always interesting.

In this novel the main story line does not deal with solving a murder but on searching for the widow of his mentor. He learns, however, that the widow is his actual mother and his mentor was his father. This part of the novel is really good, but Moody mucks a fine story up with two unnecessary subplots.

One subplot deals with a grad student from UCLA who had been taking care of his mentor’s dog. Evan inherits the house, meets the grad student, and they develop a very nice relationship, the grad student obviously falling in love with Evan. This creates a little tension because Evan has a girl friend, an FBI agent whom I don’t like, whom Evan isn’t sure of. Out of the blue the grad student is killed accidentally. I felt Moody didn’t know what to do with the developing relationship between Evan and the girl, didn’t want to have to deal with her in the next book, so he killed her off. I thought it was a cheap trick to kill off a character Moody had made the reader really like.

The second subplot is even too dumb to mention. Neither subplot supported the main plot. It was like Moody felt like he didn’t have enough material for a book so he padded it with subplots which sabotaged what could have been an even more moving story.

Cornwell has a new novel out, Scarpetta, but I don't think I'll read this one as the reviews I've seen have been very negative. However, I'm hoping that Mayor and Moody return to form in their next novels.

Next time I'll write about mystery writers whose books I read this year and loved.

© 2008 by Julius Lester

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