Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in Books

In my last post, I promised to review Tess Gerritsen's latest book, THE SILENT GIRL, this week. Don't worry, I'll keep my promise here, but I'd also like to comment on a couple of other books I've read lately, books that didn't grab me the way Gerritsen's did. I'm wondering, is it just me, or are other mystery readers getting as bored as I am with some of the books being pushed as "bestsellers" or reviewed as four-to-five star wonders?

Maybe I'm just getting crabby in my old age. (sigh) But more of that later. Right now, here's my review of THE SILENT GIRL.

Tess Gerritsen
Ballantine, May 26, 2011
318 pages
ISBN 9780345515506

The story opens with a scene that introduces, without naming them, two principal characters in the book. Gerritsen then fast forwards seven years to a Boston courtroom where medical examiner Maura Isles is testifying in the case of a man beaten to death by two policemen while in custody for the murder of a fellow cop. Maura's assertion that the death was a homicide doesn't sit well with members of Boston's finest. Their anger shows in their treatment of Isles when later that night she arrives at the scene of a murder in Boston's Chinatown.

The young man conducting the Chinatown Ghost Tour didn't expect trouble when he led his customers to an abandoned building that nineteen years earlier housed a restaurant where five people died in a violent murder/suicide shooting spree. But trouble is what he gets when an especially bratty boy in the group discovers a severed human hand in the alley alongside the building. By the time Maura appears, Jane Rizzoli has already found the body to which the hand was once connected -- on the roof of the former Red Phoenix Restaurant. And in the victim's pocket, Jane has found a GPS device containing the addresses of retired police detective Louis Ingersoll and martial arts instructor Iris Fang.

Rizzoli enlists the aid of Chinese-American Detective Johnny Tam when it turns out that Iris Fang was married to one of the men killed at the Red Phoenix, while Ingersoll was the investigating officer in the case. Could this present day killing be tied to the long ago deaths at the restaurant?

Gerritsen blends ancient Chinese folk tales with modern day criminal practices in this complex yet highly enjoyable follow-up to ICE COLD. Maura has only a minor role in this case; recovering from her romantic misadventures with Daniel Brody, she spends some quality time with the young man who saved her life in the previous Rizzoli & Isles novel. This is mostly Jane's story, but in several chapters the reader is also treated to a view of the earlier crime from Iris Fang's vantage point. The Chinatown setting with its emphasis on cultural traditions lends a rich yet almost spooky atmosphere to the story.

I give this novel four stars. It's a satisfying addition to a well-crafted series.

I can't say the same for Lisa Jackson's SHIVER. This 495-page romantic suspense novel may have been a 2006 bestseller, but I found it predictable in both plot and characterization. So there's a serial killer on the loose in New Orleans. Yeah, (yawn) so what's new and exciting about that? Well, he kills victims in pairs and stages their bodies to look like murder/suicide scenes. Again, (yawn) been there, done that. So one cop is a slob with a dirty-old-man mentality (seen this one before, haven't you?), and the other cop is a leather jacket/blue jean clad stud. (What else did you expect?) The stud falls for the damsel-in-distress suspect, and she falls equally hard for him. Eventually they both fall into bed and we have our one explicit sex scene. After that, it's all "Should I have done that? Am I falling in love/lust with him/her?" It all gets rather dull after a while. But they say that sex sells -- and obviously it sells well for Jackson -- so who am I to criticize, right?

And then there's the amateur sleuth novel I read, the first in a series that's getting high praise in the review columns. What didn't I like about it, you ask. Well, first of all, there's the obligatory highly intelligent pet who goes everywhere with the protagonist -- in this case, even to memorial services. I gotta tell you, folks, in Chicago the only animals attending memorial services with their owners are seeing-eye dogs. Cats, parrots, pet monkeys? No way, nada, never gonna work.

Secondly, there's the supposedly intelligent amateur sleuth (who of course has an interesting job that allows him/her lots and lots of free time to snoop around in murder cases) who inevitably holds back some extremely pertinent information from the police because (A) it probably has no bearing on the case; (B) the cop didn't ask for the info so the amateur sleuth feels no obligation to reveal it; or (C) in the amateur sleuth's opinion, the info points to the wrong person. Yep, there's one of those amateur sleuths in this book.

What I really disliked about the novel was its lack of suspense. At no time did I absolutely have to turn the page because I was so caught up in the story that I just had to know what happened next. I got bored with all the filler material. You know what I mean by "filler": the protagonist has nothing to do because the plot isn't strong enough, so the writer has him cook dinner, or take a shower, or brush his teeth, or do something equally mundane that has nothing at all to do with advancing the story or making the protagonist a more believable character. This absolutely drives me crazy (especially the teeth brushing ploy) to the point where I want to throw the book at the wall.

I love a well-written, well-plotted mystery, be it amateur sleuth, police procedural, P.I., romantic suspense, thriller, or any other type of mystery novel. But I'm tired of the publisher-inspired "craft cozies" where every main character is either a butcher, a baker, or a candlestick maker -- or the equivalent thereof.

What about you? What bugs you in a book? Share your comments here, or talk to me on Facebook. I'm not a FB junkie, but I do check in every day. :)



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