Read Warm Words & Otherwise: A Blizzard of Book Reviews Online

Authors: John Grant

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Reference, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #History & Criticism, #Criticism & Theory

Warm Words & Otherwise: A Blizzard of Book Reviews (5 page)

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The Fifth Victim

by Beverly Barton

Zebra, 352 pages, paperback, 2008

Oh dear.

A small Tennessee town: Cherokee Pointe. A killer starts sacrificially murdering young women. Maverick FBI agent Dallas Sloan (rippling thews, unruly shock of blond hair, never found a woman who could tame him; get the idea?) recognizes the m.o. and arrives seeking vengeance for the killing of his niece by this same murderer the previous year in a different state. He's the only person in the FBI who's noticed there's a killer on the loose whose m.o. is to sacrificially murder four women in a row and then do the same to a fifth but with the extra feature of ripping her heart out for later cannibalistic consumption.

Here in Cherokee Pointe, though, the local law forces have what would seem to be, were it not that the local Chief of Police is a sinecured halfwit, a considerable advantage: local psychic Genny Madoc (petite, pert breasts, never found a man worth letting inside her pants; get the idea again?) can intermittently tap into the killer's mind and witness his vile deeds. Now, if only she could get a street address ...

Although Dallas thinks "psychics" are all phonies or crazies, from the moment they first clap eyes on each other the electricity sparks between him and Genny with such intensity Van de Graaff would have trashed his own generator in jealous disgust. It's obvious that, unless one or other actually bursts into flames first, they're going to have a monumental sex scene about three-quarters of the way through the book, and, golly gosh, so they do.

Alas, just about everything else is equally predictable except quite how much direr, at any particular point, the book can get from here on.

The Fifth Victim
is by intention a serial-killer chiller, a mystery and a semi-erotic romance novel – all three. To take these aspects in turn: The serial-killer aspect is so hokey (oh, lumme: satanist cults) it'd have seemed a trifle passé in, say, 1953. The mystery's flaccid: the murderer's the guy you thought, then thought might be the Red Herring because he's so bloody obvious.

And the erotica? Oh, geez. The Genny/Dallas megaromp is surprisingly OK, but elsewhere the liberal sexual references, plus the fairly frequent lesser sex scenes, are so clumsy and dumb it's hard to know whether to burst out laughing or into tears. And the main characters have astonishingly high Allure Quotients. Perhaps people have stronger sex urges in Tennessee: not one but
several
of the characters possess such a powerful aura of sexuality that they leave members of the opposite gender in a state of high arousal merely by walking by or speaking on the phone.

This is a book that leaves you begging for less.

Oh dear.

—Crescent Blues

A Matter of Profit

by Hilari Bell

HarperCollins Children's Books, 281 pages, hardback, 2001

Usually, by the end of reading a book, one has a fairly clear idea – possibly a misguided one, but still an idea – of whether the book is good, bad or somewhere in between, but in the instance of Hilari Bell's young-adult sf novel
A Matter of Profit
this particular reader has found it infernally, and bizarrely, hard to decide.

The protagonist is a young man, Ahvren, of the human species known as the Vivitare. Generations ago, the Vivitare were conquered on their home world by militaristic alien invaders, the Karg. They fought a protracted rebellion, eventually driving out and exterminating the invaders. Now they in turn, using Karg technology, conquer other worlds. Latest on the list is the 40-world, 40-species alliance known as the T'Chin. But the diverse T'Chin species (many of which have names tiresomely full of apostrophes and triple esses) have confused the Vivitare Empire by offering up no resistance to the invasion: they have let the Vivitare simply walk in and take over, a reaction interpreted by the Vivitare as being just a matter of cowardice.

The Vivitare have a pretty savage code. In place of a religion they have what can most swiftly be described as a faith in the survival of the fittest. At the top of their social order, therefore, are the most skilled fighters – the soldiers, who are exclusively male. Other men are, through sterilization, eliminated from contributing to the gene pool. Women, who are generally regarded as incompetent at just about everything, do not suffer such a triage; it's assumed the most survival-equipped men will wish to mate with only the most beautiful and survival-equipped women.

Young Ahvren, although a fully qualified member of the soldier caste, has been sickened by the ruthless Vivitare suppression of a recent rebellion on the planet Mirmanidan. He wants to get out of the war game, something very difficult for a member of his caste. When he expresses this to his father, who is a high member of the aristocracy, his father makes a wager with him: he can quit soldiery if he can use his wits to run to earth the widely rumoured plot to assassinate the Emperor.

So Ahvren goes out and about among the diverse species of the planet T'Chin, main centre of the T'Chin alliance and the original home of the T'chin species. Note that lower-case "c"; it's not a typo. Although there is no hierarchy among the 40 species of the T'Chin alliance, the species that started it all was the insectile T'chin, the differentiation being marked by the upper-case/lower-case "c".

And it is with this sort of thing that Bell starts getting into all sorts of difficulties, because an alien language wouldn't have a letter "c" in it in the first place – and doubly so since the T'chin communicate via smells (pheromonal exudations) rather than sounds. Indeed, Bell has gone to great and highly creditable effort to create a whole gamut of alien species that are not just different from us but different from each other, yet at the same time she seems to keep forgetting the very aspects of their alienness that she has been at such pains to establish. As example, we often discover members of physiologically quite distinct, non-humanoid species grinning at each other. Item A: What does an alien grin look like? Item B: Would a truly alien species experience the emotion that would produce a grin?

It may seem unkind to keep harping on this point but, precisely because Bell has done such a good job otherwise of creating the aliens, it keeps slapping at the reader. We are completely convinced by Wurrul, a member of a somewhat catlike species, and then we're hit by "the astonishment on his face rapidly giving way to careful control. Only the flicking tip of his tail revealed tension." (This book was read as an uncorrected proof, so the particular passage may, like others below, have been amended.) How could Ahvren read those emotions on Wurrul's face? And, although Wurrul looks a bit like a giant cat, why should he reveal tension by tail-twitching in the manner of a terrestrial moggie?

At the same time, there is so much to praise about this book as a work of the imagination. The multicultural mix of alien species is ambitious, and Bell has done really well here. The Vivitare culture is well painted. Ahvren and some of the other characters, notably his foster-sister Sabri, leap off the page as real people. It is also highly praiseworthy that some pretty tough issues are tackled head-on in a way not normally associated with novels for this age-group. The main plot is less invigorating, for the most part, and involves frequent interjections – from a T'chin – that even George Lucas might have thought twice about putting into the mouth of Yoda: "A turtle encountering a rock thinks it a very slow creature." (And again, how would an alien know about turtles?) Yet often there are glowingly vivid pieces of prose: "She must have been pretty once, and she was hanging on to the voluptuous remains of her charms."

This is certainly not an inconsiderable novel: it is of serious intent, and it decidedly merits reading. But it's also a bit of a curate's egg. Good, bad or indifferent? Bad it isn't – it has too many virtues for that – but, as noted at the start, this reader at least can't make up his mind about the other two.

—Infinity Plus

Thief of Souls

by Ann Benson

Dell, 496 pages, paperback, 2002

This long book (623 pages) is really two novels in one. In the first, set in 15th-century France, the widow, now abbess, Guillemette correlates the many rumors circulating the countryside that one of France's great heroes, Gilles de Rais, who fought alongside Joan of Arc, is a serial sex killer of young boys. Guillemette's quest to find the truth is both spurred and complicated by the fact that, in the long ago, she was Gilles's wet nurse; he was the playmate of her younger son, Michel, who disappeared one day, supposedly gored and dragged off by a wild boar, with Gilles as the only witness. Now Gilles relies on his power and status to protect him from the consequences – even the suspicion – of his crimes. However, with the support of prelate-politician Jean de Malestroit, Guillemette uncovers the revolting truth about the man whom, in a way, she still loves, and vindictively, because of her long-dead son, pursues him through trial and punishment.

The second novel, told in alternate chapters, has parallels. In modern Los Angeles, cop Lany Dunbar uses good detective work to ascertain fairly swiftly that renowned movie special-effects man Wilbur Durand is the psychopathic killer of a series of adolescent boys. Like the Gilles of Benson's story, Durand was grossly sexually abused as a child by older relatives; the origins of his psychopathy are not hard to understand. Pinning Durand down and bringing him to justice are, however, not such simple tasks for Lany as one might expect, for he is to a large extent protected by the shields of our modern US hierarchy, notably money and prestige. And soon Lany's own son is threatened, so the matter becomes even more personal ...

Of the two slightly related novels, the historical one is the more successful. Medieval France was a barbaric place to be, and Benson captures the ambience with a somewhat plodding skill, drawing us into the mores of that society. In particular, she manages well the matter of cultural relativism; for example, we can recognize Jean de Malestroit as an intelligent and sensitive man even though he is, in accordance with his era, quite ready to call in the torturers of the Inquisition to facilitate the gathering of evidence. Likewise, Guillemette's bloodthirsty desire for vengeance – she is near-grief stricken when the court decrees Gilles will be hanged before burning, rather than suffer the agonies of being burned alive – seems well in keeping with her time.

The mechanical alternation of chapters between the two tales – if it's an odd-numbered chapter we must be in medieval France – does little to help the modern-day story, but its real problem is that, unlike the historical one, it is nowhere near strong enough that it could stand up on its own as a solo novel. The detection element of its plot is clever, but over fairly quickly; the rest is somewhat formulaic. Perhaps in an attempt to underscore the loose parallels between the two tales, or perhaps just to emphasize the notion that defensive mothers have a spitefulness that transcends the passage of centuries, Benson has Lany, with apparent auctorial approval, coldly arrange for the torture murder of Durand in prison – this despite Lany's acceptance that Durand was a killer solely because mentally ill. Torture murder as a fitting response to the sick? We're left with not resolution but revulsion.

—Crescent Blues

Lazy Bones

by Mark Billingham

Morrow, 384 pages, hardback, 2003

I read and was much impressed by Mark Billingham's previous Inspector Tom Thorne thriller,
Scaredy Cat
, although I had reservations about the clumsiness of the writing. This time around, that clumsiness has disappeared, as if by magic – or by editor – and we're left with a marvellously slick piece of police-procedural noir. My only reservations concern the plotting.

Thorne and his crew at Scotland Yard's Serious Crimes Group perhaps shouldn't have been called in for something so banal as the torture murder of recently released rapist Douglas Remfry, but it's lucky they are because the killing proves to be the first in a series. Someone is cultivating pen-friendships with convicted rapists and then, on their release, luring them with pornographic photos and promises of S&M sex to their painful dooms. As with other serial cases, the likelihood is that the source of the murderer's rage lies somewhere in history, but at first the SCG doesn't know where in history to look. A search of past murders reveals a couple of unsolved cases that are tantalizingly similar, but the similarities aren't quite strong enough and anyway there's no obvious connection.

But then at last one of the employees of the recently formed Area Major Review Unit – which brings elderly police officers out of retirement to analyze cold cases – starts probing the long-ago murder of an accused but acquitted rapist, and this leads her to a ghastly 25-year-old murder-suicide that may hold the key to Tom Thorne's latest problem.

Meanwhile the body count continues to rise, and through it all the flinty hearted Thorne is trying to cope with the blossoming of the first romance to come his way in years ...

The mortar in Billingham's thrillers is the joyous facility with which he creates vivid, interesting, complex secondary characters. Outstanding in
Lazy Bones
are Phil Hendricks (from previous cases), the gay, punk forensics expert who just happens to be the seemingly ultra-conservative copper Tom Thorne's best friend; and especially Carol Chamberlain, the police retiree who looks like someone's not-necessarily-very-nice, overweight granny but who brings unbridled enthusiasm and a mind like a laser to her duties at the Area Major Review Unit. Even if the main plot itself were not so powerfully gripping, we'd be kept reading compulsively by the urge to follow the fates of these and the other characters.

In the case of
Lazy Bones
, it's good that this is so, because the plotting makes it a bit thunderingly obvious to us, from about two-thirds of the way in, who it is who's committing the murders. Since Thorne has almost the full gamut of the same evidence in front of him as we do, it's somewhat implausible that his masterful detective mind doesn't at least share the same suspicions. In fact, the book otherwise has such a strength to it that the pages keep relentlessly turning anyway, but it means that one finishes
Lazy Bones
with a sense of slight disappointment that the denouement's anticipated reversal of expectations never happened.

If you've not encountered Tom Thorne yet, you most certainly should. He's a worthy counterpart to Ian Rankin's Edinburgh cop, John Rebus. And that's high praise.

—Crescent Blues

BOOK: Warm Words & Otherwise: A Blizzard of Book Reviews
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