Monday, November 19, 2018

River of Darkness by Rennie Airth (A John Madden Mystery)

Mystery readers know there is an important distinction between a mystery and a police procedural. The two genres often merge, usually bringing out the best of both when they do, but however wonderful the center of that Venn diagram is the fact remains they are different things.

When I began reading River of Darkness, the first John Madden mystery in the series, I expected a mystery and ended up enthralled in a just-one-more-page-on-my-thirty-minute-lunch-break police procedural that continually surprised me. Given that police procedurals aren't my usual genre, I've given a lot of thought as to why I loved this book so much and have pinpointed several aspects I particularly enjoyed. 

First, it's a well-done portrayal of England between the wars, when everyone -- survivors and those left to grieve alike -- are shrouded with ghosts of grief. Side tables have photos of long-dead, dull-eyed uniformed sons and brothers. Men struggle to make their way through life with missing limbs. The social chasm between those who could serve, those who did, and those who wished they did whispers beneath even the banalest of social interactions. 

And yet, there is a sense of newness and forward momentum, too. Cars are becoming increasingly more commonplace. The emerging working class hankers for luxury buys like radios. Slowly but surely, people turn their eyes to the future by tilling the blood-stained soil, re-marrying or simply getting up and going to work. 

So when a retired Colonel, his wife and two staff members are brutally murdered in their Sussex manor, leaving their five-year-old daughter to be found cowering beneath the bed, the intrusion of violence on a village that's only recently found peace is especially jarring for the surrounding coutnryside. 

Despite the solid premise, I'll admit I was worried in the first thirty pages because there were so many characters, most of them inspectors of varying rank and jurisdiction. While that added a sense of realism to the setting, I was not looking forward to having to bring out a notebook to keep track of the characters. But, Airth handles this well, generally only dealing with a handful of characters at a time and working titles or formal salutations into the text. 

He also takes the interesting tack of telling som of the story from the point of view of a minor, auxiliary character. The struggle of this junior officer, just out his police blues, to impress his superiors and overcome his inexperience is both compelling and a fun twist from a writing perspective. Although I'm sure it's been done before, I hadn't come across that and enjoyed the change of pace from the usual protagonist only/objective third person method usually used by authors. 

The protagonist, John Madden, has been scarred by so much tragedy (even before surviving World War I) it almost crosses from pathos to eye-roll inducing but here, too, Airth has managed to pull back just in time. We are given a man who is as broken as Charles Todd's Ian Rutledge but has kept the kindness and compassion of Barbara Cleverly's Joe Sandilands

And, unlike the latter two series, this series travels the path of redemption, hope and healing. To say more would be to break my cardinal rule of no spoilers or plot re-writes, but it was interesting to see a character in this genre turn towards the light. It gave the story a nice bit of texture. 

So we have a solid, intriguing murder with an unconventional modus operandi and a good protagonist. So far so good, but plenty of the mysteries I review have those. So what pushed this book from merely a good read to a great one? 

Here I'm forced to break my second rule of the blog and eschew objectivity and admit a personal bias. One of the main reasons I read historical fiction mysteries, particularly those that take place in early 20th century England, is because of how mysteries must be solved using new criminology and forensics but no modern technology such as we have.  

This book is rife with that. Madden and his partner are hunting a serial killer before having the vocabulary to articulate what a serial killer is. So they know they're hunting a madman, but convincing anyone else it's a particular type of madman is a formidable challenge.

Superiors in Scottland Yard categorically refuse to entertain the notion of employing what we would call forensic psychology. Fingerprints are new (but used) and even the use of the car is a luxury and not guaranteed. Inspectors have to investigate multiple locations and communicate when the nearest phone is often literally miles away. Overcoming the bureaucracy of the War Office in an attempt to get records is hindered simply by where those records may be physically stored. Airth covers all of these without over-explaining or overdoing it, and I enjoyed watching the process. 

The other reason I enjoyed this book is that, like many mystery readers, I have a true crime penchant, specifically for serial killers. And the way the First World War plays into this killer's modus operandi is fascinating, horrifyingly plausible and utterly gripping.

Again, I thought I was reading a mystery but found myself reading a well-plotted psychological thriller with suspense on par with that master of horror and psychological suspense, Alex Grecian.  

Finally, although there is a resolution, much like in real life there aren't really any "winners" and even the final key to resolution is more luck than skill. But for all that, as I said, I simply couldn't stop turning the page. 

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Proof of Guilt by Charles Todd (An Inspector Ian Rutledge Mystery)

The last two Ian Rutledge books left me a bit concerned. They weren't bad or anything. The writing was fine, the mysteries compelling; as always, the mother-and-son team of Charles Todd delivered an absorbing and atmospheric read. The characters were complex and internal and series-wide plot threads were worked well into the narrative.

And yet after reading Proof of Guilt I found myself vaguely wondering if this, one of my favorite Victorian mystery series ever, might be one I left one day. I couldn't quite put my finger on why, however.

Maybe it's me; perhaps my more recent bent towards cozies in general or new loves Tana French and Denise Mina were dampening my enthusiasm for Rutledge.

Perhaps it was Rutledge; surely he must heal at some point but, if he does, what of Hamish? But no, Rutledge on his own would be fine, too.

Regardless, I'm not one to give up on friends -- erm, fictional characters, ehem -- easily, so I was relieved when the standard vignette Todd opens all the books with completely captivated me. The setting -- pre- and post-World War I Maderia, Spain -- was fascinating, and it occurred to me maybe Rutledge (or rather, his readers) just needed a change of scenery.

Alas, it wasn't meant to be. I kept waiting for Rutledge to travel to Spain to investigate the prestigious French family, vintners with pedigree and relatively few secrets but plenty of the resentments and slights found in families the world over. As always in a Rutledge book, people's motivations are never quite clear and often result from complex emotions which, in my view, lends them more credibility than suspects tend to have in this genre, but we only got to see most of them in retrospect.

Despite this, I did enjoy the actual mystery, which was the lesser-used variant on the standard found-body formula (not a complaint; obviously, I love mysteries) of needing to deduce who the found body is in the first place. I must admit there's a nice little twist there.

Yet while this was a good read I'm forced to confess it wasn't a favorite, and for a rather shallow, superficial reason, too. I didn't like who the villain turned out to be -- sure, it was the less-expected suspect, and fit well into a the physical-combat climax (which was exceptionally well-written for an action scene that very easily could have been confusing and muddled), but I just plain didn't want it to be that person. The person who I did want it to be, granted, would've been obvious, but also in my opinion more compelling because of its plausibility.

The character development was strong, however. Rutledge's sister, specifically, has a bit more of a character-driven presence in this novel and I enjoyed that very much. And Rutledge does seem to be slowly but surely healing from his broken heart, though he is still very much a wounded man. Rutledge has a new boss I'm interested enough in to read more to suss him out and there's a new character with a background in intelligence, always a nice device in these kinds of series.

So, for now, I'll keep reading the series, though it may have bumped down in my rotation a few notches. 

Sunday, April 1, 2018

An Old Betrayal by Charles Finch (A Charles Lenox mystery)

One of the best things about a mystery series -- or any genre series, I suppose -- is watching character plotlines progress throughout several books. Although many series' authors deliberately set up each book so it can be read as an independent installment, there is still something particularly satisfying about reading a snippet of dialogue and knowing it refers to some wider plot arc. It's a bit like finding an Easter egg in a video game or movie.

And so although there are many things to love about An Old Betrayal, the seventh Charles Lenox mystery series written by Charles Finch, the development of several supporting characters is what makes this particular installment in the series stand out for me. In fact, it may be my favorite in the series thus far, though it may be more accurate to say it ties with A Burial at Sea.

The main mystery is compelling. It begins when Charles meets -- or rather, fails to meet -- an anonymous client of his protege Jonathan Dallington, who is ill and can not meet the client himself. It turns out the client has a rather important job in Buckingham Palace and has become an extortion victim. The reason for that extortion, however, that is the crux of the matter and leads to a wonderfully suspenseful ending. Unfortunately, I can't say anything more without breaking my personal cardinal rule of reviews of not re-writing the plot or giving any spoilers.

Additionally, the book has several delicious sub-mysteries as well, all involving people in Charles' life. Finch's skill as a writer quietly shines here -- none of the subplots feel forced or shoehorned in, and one never gets the sense that characters appear simply because they are "fan favorites", which can sometimes happen when a series becomes more popular. The most interesting of these is a mystery of sorts that threatens Charles' career in Parliament. 

All the wonderful hallmarks of the series are present in this installment, especially the elegant juxtaposition of the genteel world of Victorian London's upper classes with the feral brutality of desperate criminals. Although Charles doesn't venture into any slums in this installment, the plight of the poor is still present in the background of the book, such as when  Charles spends part of the book fighting for better housing for the poor in Parliament. The narrative sparkles with gems of historical research; my favorite was the explanation of how the word "hogwash" originated. And throughout it all are Finch's gentle humor and razor-sharp insight into human nature at both its best and worst. 

I have always believed the characters are the heart and soul of a good story. A story with a meticulous and clever plot and perhaps even a decently crafted setting, but characters without distinct personalities, is like a perfect cake in which one forgets the baking soda; it inevitably falls flat. This installment fleshes out Toto and McConnel, introduces some very refreshing and new characters (spinoff series? dare I hope?) and allows all of the established characters to grow.

A successful series installment makes the reader eager to read the next installment. When it comes to mystery series, for me, it also makes the characters seem like old friends you visit periodically. By that measure, this series is a resounding success.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas by Stephanie Barron (Being a Jane Austen Mystery)

It may have been simply the timing – there couldn’t be a better set up for a mystery lover at Christmastime – but Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas brought Stephanie Barron’s “Being a Jane Austen Mystery” series back into my rotation after a fairly lengthy hiatus.

After two slightly disappointing previous installments, I found myself thoroughly engrossed in a mystery that had all the classic elements of a good mystery: Jane and her family trapped in a snowbound country estate, a nefarious murder that leaves a household full of suspects, geopolitical intrigue, a pleasant subplot of a hand-made doll’s wardrobe and an as-ever observant but slightly more snarky (and hilarious) Jane Austen.

So again, it may have been the timing. It was Christmas, I was determined to get into the Christmas spirit and it was bitterly cold in both Phoenix and Las Vegas (by Phoenix and Las Vegas standards, mind you) where I started and finished the book. I’m a great believer in literary ambiance and if there were ever a book written to be enjoyed while drinking spendy tea and wearing Christmas fuzzy socks this is it.

Yet perhaps this particular installment achieves its aim so well because Barron fleshes out Austen and her family in a way I don’t think she ever has before.

In this book we glimpse Austen’s deep yearning for her deceased father. The complexities of her relationship with her sister Cassandra elevate “Cass” from a background character to a much more appealing player. Likewise, even Austen’s brother Henry and his wife, Mary, unlikeable though they may be, feel like those family members we all have in one iteration or another. That's not to say there's an excessive amount of naval gazing, mind you. But Jane felt more like a woman and less like just a detective-cum-authoress than ever before. 

It’s clear Barron conducts an extraordinary amount of research into every book and is meticulous about incorporating actual facts from Austen’s life into the mystery. Or rather, she takes Austen's life and puts a mystery into that time period. If Austen was in Bath in December of 18__, that’s where that mystery will take place. If her brothers were deployed during the first Napoleonic war, then Barron will be certain to work in Jane’s justifiable fretting about them. The books are set up as journal entries for chapters, but the dates are not made up in the slightest. In terms of sheer chronological detail, this series may be as close to nonfiction as a pastiche can ever hope to get.

And maybe that’s why Barron always seemed a bit reticent to develop her Jane Austen’s character. In the other books, I always felt like Austen was almost too objective, her astuteness the product of an impartiality that made her a touch less, well, human. 

Not so in Twelve Days, however. It feels as though Barron has made whatever peace she needed to in order to allow this iteration of Austen blossom into a full-fledged heroine, complete with an internal life that goes beyond eagle-eyed observation of others and an intellect softened by wit.

There’s even the slightest whiff of romance, which I for one was happy to see, but in true Austen style this in no way interferes with or subtracts from the very serious business of murder, family secrets and – huzzah! – plausible secret passages.

In addition to a wonderful atmosphere and well-developed characters (there are quite a few, actually), this particular Jane Austen mystery sheds light on Edwardian Christmas celebrations and traditions, which nerds like me always enjoy. From the actual boughs of holly decorating the table to the literal Yule log burning in the hall, I learned quite a bit in the best way possible, by being told a story. Not being religious, I found the days honoring various saints was especially fascinating.

Finally, as a political junkie, the addition of a crucial geopolitical facet to the mystery left me falling asleep only because I couldn’t keep my eyes open and waking up eager to get to reading again. I wish that had been developed a bit more, but respect that it really couldn’t be without stretching the boundary of plausibility too far.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Dead Hour by Denise Mina (A Paddy Meehan mystery)

During one scene in Denise Mina’s The Dead Hour, the series protagonist Paddy Meehan struggles to climb a tall gate in order to inspect a property possibly involved in a murder. Paddy, an overweight, insecure but determined Scottish Daily News crime reporter, eventually scales the door, but not before gracelessly falling into the mud and tearing her stockings. The stockings are more than just an aesthetic inconvenience; Paddy supports her parents and one sister on her meager reporter’s salary and every penny counts, so it's not simply a matter of buying a new pair. Besides, it’s terribly cold in Scotland and wool stockings help. Still, frustrated but undaunted, Paddy nevertheless makes her way to the house to snoop around.

It’s the kind of scene Denise Mina handles exceptionally well. Her deft touch allows the protagonist to be brave without being invulnerable, intelligent but still prone make to utterly human poor decisions, and always themselves while trudging through the day-to-day small indignities that accompany being on the lower rungs of social and economic status.

I’ve whined before in this blog about heroines who come dangerously close to becoming bland, boring Mary Sues – of course they happen to have studied that obscure dialect of a lesser-known language, and of course they have impeccable fashion sense and yes, they’re good at Math and have a perfect sense of direction and handle all social morasses with diplomacy and aplomb – but that is a risk Paddy will likely never run. And thank goodness for that.

This third installment of the Paddy Meehan series focuses on the reporter’s almost inadvertent acceptance of a bribe at the scene of a domestic violence incident that becomes a brutal murder. Less than accepting the bribe, the much-needed, blood-stained money is thrust into Paddy’s hands by the man who answers the door. Before she can react, the door is slammed in her face.

Paddy’s internal vacillations about whether to keep the money or turn it in to the police as evidence, and the consequences of that decision for her both personally and professionally, turn a compelling thriller and mystery into something more literary and rich.

A counternarrative of an addict, from a completely different point of view (Mina’s ability to completely change narrative voice, syntax, perspective and style are comparable to Tana French, who is an absolute master at this) adds an undercurrent of suspense that keeps the reader turning pages.

Although I’m not overly familiar with Scotland’s recession during the 1980s, the dreary ghosts of empty factories and the lingering wounds suffered by the workers' families are an ever-present, sinister whisper throughout the story. Yet the reader is never bludgeoned over the head with it, either.

But all that is signature Mina, of course. One is forced to confront the totally unvarnished, unembellished and only loosely fictionalized realities of poverty, sex trafficking, mental health care, (or the lack thereof) and much more in all of Mina’s novels (brace yourself when reading her phenomenal and gripping Garnett Hill  trilogy), but the reader is never being proselytized, either. Reality simply is what it is, and there’s little use complaining about it.

Lest that deter those of you who are interested in giving Mina a shot, I should also point out her books also have intelligent, complex characters and her heroines all have a wicked, laugh-out-loud sense of humor that helps lighten the aforementioned aspects. The darkness of external environments is often lightened with a quick quip or hilarious internal dialogue.

In short, The Dead Hour is a pretty enjoyable installment in the series, although I concede a character development cliff hanger at the end left me frustrated and annoyed. In keeping with my cardinal rule for this blog, I won’t give spoilers, but suffice it so say I was left thinking, “Oh great, not another one!”, with “one” meaning female protagonists of mystery series.

Leaving that aside, however, I’m going to indulge in a personal note. There is a line in this book in which a new editor from London replaces the bedraggled, grizzled old-school editor. That dismissal is soon followed by the exit of several of the other reporters of a very old generation, one in which writing a story from a bar nearby and drinking at work was not only the norm but damn near expected.

The presses leave the building, and the sales staff and editors all move into cubicles on the floor beneath the comfortably worn and broken-in newsroom, with its scarred tables, clanging typewriters and assorted detritus.

The line observes that now the newspaper could just as well be selling insurance, and no one would be able to tell the difference.

It reminded me, sharply, of when the small press that was housed adjacent to my first paper, The Pahrump Valley Times, was shut down so the paper could be printed in Las Vegas, about 45 minutes away.

Before then, I would sometimes go into the press building and chat with the press guys or just watch the presses whir. More than anything I loved to breathe in the sharp, slightly acidic smell of ink and be wrapped in the thudding rumble of events being churned onto giant rolls of paper. It felt like being right inside the world’s heartbeat.

I often lingered in the press room of my last paper, The Casa Grande Dispatch, too, for the basically the same reason. Both papers had wonderfully broken-in newsroom where reporters filed stories alongside wavering stacks of the newspapers next to their desks and the editor (or in the Dispatch’s case, the publisher) had the only real office. I suppose, in a way, they were the transition between Paddy’s old-school newsroom and today’s slick, cubicle-mazed offices.

At any rate, though I don’t think I’d want a return to the boorish, chauvinist, functioning-alcoholic newsrooms of the past (we had them here in America, too), I deeply appreciated Mina’s nod to the death of a certain era.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Leaving Everthing Most Loved by Jacqueline Winspear (A Maisie Dobbs mystery)

Jacqueline Winspear describes murder victims so well through other characters you half-wish they hadn't been killed so you can "meet" the character. But then there wouldn't be a murder to solve so, in the end, this literary taunting is forgivable. 
In Leaving Everything Most Loved, the tenth book in the acclaimed Maisie Dobbs series, Winspear has outdone herself in this regard.

Leaving Everything Most Loved, like all compelling historical fiction, allows the reader to glimpse a small snippet of history that is often overlooked when major events and social shifts are viewed from across an expanse of decades. 

In this case, Winspear focuses on the experiences of Indian maids and nannies brought to England by British families returning from stints in the British Raj. It wasn't uncommon for the Indian help to be summarily dismissed when children went to boarding school or they were simply deemed unnecessary. Consequently, many young, single Indian women were left to fend for themselves in a foreign city without so much as reference or severance pay. 

Churches and charity groups set up boarding homes for these women, often demanding conversion to Christianity in exchange. Some homes would find the women work so the women could eventually earn enough for passage back to India. But every so often a woman might marry an Englishman or choose to stay in London, which contributed to a growing Indian community.

Maisie is asked to consult with Scottland Yard when a particularly striking Indian woman is shot directly between the eyes. Her body is discovered days later by a group of young boys playing near the canal. The victim's brother, who fought for Britain in World War I, correctly assumes the simmering bigotry of London's middle class towards the city's burgeoning Indian community prevented Yard investigators from being as thorough as they might have been. When the brother comes to London and appears at Scottland Yard in his British army uniform, the Yard takes him, and the case, to Maisie's door.

Winspear's ability to illustrate the social tension between the Indian women like the victim and London's middle-class through the words and actions of auxiliary characters is "hidden" research at its best. Conversations and offhand comments feel authentic to the period and no statistics or facts are laboriously inserted into the narrative to make any points. Still, one gets a very clear sense of the social mores of mid- to late-1930s London.

There are far too few glimpses into the riches of Indian culture, but enough of them to bring to mind the way Indian spices wrap around one like a warm, heavy blanket when Indian cuisine is cooked, or to think back on the beautiful, brightly-colored silks from which saris are made.

The mystery of who shot the victim is certainly central to the novel, but once again I found myself thinking Winspear has outgrown the "mystery" genre. Would I read a Maisie Dobbs installment if it wasn't a mystery? Absolutely, though unlike the past two books the mystery itself felt less shoehorned into genre conventions.

Another of Winspear's strengths as a writer lies in her ability to create convincing inner narratives and motivations for her characters, even if the characters themselves lack any gritty flaws that would make them as human as, say, a Denise Mina character. This story seemed particularly well-suited to exploring character motivation and made for enjoyable reading.

As always, Winspear's landscapes are convincing if a bit airbrushed, and although plenty of readers quickly tire of Maisie's "naval gazing," I personally enjoy her introspection. For me, Maisie's indecisiveness is a saving grace; without it, she is far too much of a Mary Sue to be interesting.

Finally, for those who read series because they adore the way characters in book series become like friends (and I certainly fall into this camp), this will be a rich and satisfying read indeed. Characters move on in a variety of ways and Maisie learns a bit more about controlling others and butting in. She also finds herself at a crossroads, or rather hesitant to move on to the path she has really already chosen.

I wouldn't recommend this as an introduction to the series, however. Winspear does what back explaining is necessary, but wisely keeps the rehashing short. If you're an established fan of this series, however, enjoy -- you're in for a treat. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Death Comes to Pemberly by P.D. James

Death Comes to Pemberley was my introduction to the world-renown Baroness of Holland Park P.D. James, and so I am crushed to report I did not enjoy this book at all.

I was so excited to read it, too.

First, I would finally be introduced to P.D. James and, given the subject of this blog, I'm well aware of how ridiculous it is I haven't read anything else by her.

Secondly, although not a cosplaying, fanfiction-writing, convention-attending fangirl, I do so love Jane Austen. Aside from the Sherlock Holmes canon, which I re-read when I was younger every November for about six years straight, I am not, as a general rule, one for re-reading books. But I have read Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility twice each, and suspect at some point down the road I will certainly revisit Emma.

The premise of the mystery is a wonderful one, too. A dark and stormy night, a carriage carrying Elizabeth's infamous sister Lydia (yes, that Lydia, now Mrs. Wickham) to the Darcys' door, a brutally murdered body found in a moonlit field -- the perfect recipe to stay up cataclysmically late reading. In fact, the book jacket's synopsis made save this book for a weekend because I was certain I'd lose track of time and look up from it to see silver clouds and the sun flirting with the skyline.

Which makes this review all the more difficult to write. So I will start on a positive note, and work my way through from there.

The book does succeed in a few notable ways well worth mentioning.

Undeniably, P.D. James captured the tone, syntax and rhythm of Austen's narrative style masterfully. It is obvious James loved Austen and James certainly treated Austen's sparse but piercing writing style with respect, if not reverence. Achieving that level of authenticity is not easily done and James deserves high praise for it.

There was quite a bit of detail on the British legal system, which was at the advent of some pretty exciting and revolutionary changes at the time, and James does a nice job incorporating these. As a former law student and just a nerd in general, I thought these were some of the most interesting parts of the book, but I wouldn't be shocked if others found it to be a bit too much.

There was, of course, some rehashing of Pride of Prejudice, and even though at times I thought it tedious I can forgive it -- not everyone who picks up this book with be familiar with its basis and they deserve a full story arc, too. So for me, that wasn't the issue.

The problem was the book never seemed to really to gain momentum of any kind until the very end and, even then, one subplot was tied up in a way that I can only describe as deus ex machina at best and lazy at worst.

The dialogue felt forced and wooden, turning all of the characters into beige, blurry splotches of their beloved roots, at times nearly interchangeable.

Now, I understand that this is, after all, a pastiche; I think it's unreasonable to expect the characters in any pastiche to be exactly the same as the ones in an original work. And, given that this story takes place a good length of time after Pride and Prejudice, it can be easily argued that the characters, like real people, will have grown and changed from their experiences.

Yet all of the characters sounded like the same person was speaking, particularly the men.

Granted, there was a tone and style to speech in Regency England that reflected one's class and upbringing, and any writing tackling Austen has to be aware of this because Austen herself used that as a narrative tool so well.

So Wickham would have the same speech pattern as Darcy because it would underscore their common upbringing, and serve as a subtle way to remind the reader that despite speaking the same as Darcy they are not, and never were or will be, in the same class caste.

However, that does not mean characters would give up any and all sense of personality. The fact that Austen's characters are still beloved today proves this. But unfortunately, that is exactly what happens in Death Comes to Pemberley. 

If Lydia was being melodramatic, or Darcy frustrated, or Wickham cagey, the reader never knows this by how they act or what they say but because they are told that is the case. This may come down to personal preference but that level of expository writing in fiction simply bores me to tears.

This made a pretty decent twist ending (those who read mysteries frequently will likely figure it out pretty early on) fall flat.

Even the settings have the two-dimensional feel of a cutout for a stage play, like something James had to get through before she could go back to explaining things. The characters didn't so much interact with the places they are in so much as get put there.

Which I suppose, for me, is the best way to sum up why I couldn't get lost in this story. It felt rushed and mechanical, the fiction equivalent of reading a grocery list.

Of course, every well-plotted story has an attendant checklist -- introduce characters, give full context, describe/incorporate settings, etc. etc., and what is a plot if not map? But the reader should never see that process or even know it is happening.

Whereas while slogging my way through this book I couldn't shake the feeling I was reading a detailed basic outline of a proposed story. Had James taken the time to flesh it out a bit more, this could have been a really great pastiche.