There is a small number of writers whose works I automatically put on order as soon as a new novel is announced. These are authors I have followed, in many instances, since their earliest publications and who I have always been able to rely on as excellent story-tellers. Some of them are authors of what might loosely be termed general fiction, while others are crime writers. I maintain two separate lists. However, more and more often I am finding that the authors on that second list are falling short of my expectations and gradually their numbers are beginning to dwindle.
I suspect you won’t need me to enumerate the reasons behind this, most significant of which, I think, is the demand (from both publishers and readers) that these writers produce a book a year. Sometimes the writing of a book just takes longer and, frustrating as we readers might find it, for the sake of quality we should be prepared to wait. After all, if the book has been rushed we are just as likely to be frustrated by what we do read as we would have been by, say, an eighteen month gap between novels.
I remember one notorious instance where the only way the author could explain what the villain of the piece had been up to was to have his detective confront the evildoer in his office and spell it out to him. Excuse me, but he didn’t need to be told what he’d done. He had, after all, done it. Normally we would have stood by and watched while the police pieced together bit by bit the nefarious dealings of said villain, but clearly publication date was pressing and so instead what we got was a ploy which was not that far removed from the formula beloved by school children everywhere, and then I woke up and it was all a dream.
While not quite so lacking in subtlety, I’m afraid that Kathy Reichs most recent Tempe Brennan novel, Bones of the Lost, displays similar signs of having been put together far too quickly and when I compare it to her earliest books it disappoints in respect of detail and coherence as well as pushing coincidence to a point where I find I can no longer suspend disbelief.
Briefly, because I don’t want to give too much away if you haven’t already read it, Brennan finds herself tied up with what appear to be two completely unrelated cases. One concerns the death of a young woman in a hit and run accident on the outskirts of Charlotte, while the other takes the forensic anthropologist to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan to oversee the exhumation of two bodies that are at the centre of a potential court martial. Either of these would have made an interesting book in their own right because each of them deals with an issue that is current and deserves to be given a public airing. It is because Reich tackles subjects that in many cases the powers-that-be would rather sweep under the carpet that I continue to read her. However, focusing on both problems weakens the impact that a deeper exploration of either one of them would have had and the way in which they just happen to come together stretches the reader’s credulity beyond my tolerance point.
Am I then saying that this will be the last book in this series that I read? Ah, well, that’s where the hook comes in. I’ve written before about my conviction that in many instances we read novels that are part of crime series as much to follow the personal lives of the officers concerned as to discover the solution to the current mystery and Reichs is certainly a writer who recognises this. There are two carefully placed scenes which move Brennan’s personal life forward on separate but related paths. However, neither of them resolve the situation they advance, thus tantalisingly demanding that the reader come back for succeeding episodes to find out what happens next. It takes the art of closing each chapter on a cliffhanger to a whole new level. I’d like to think that I can resist that carefully placed hook. After all, I know that any future novel will be just as carefully and enticingly constructed. But whether or not I have the strength of will is something you will have to come back next year to find out. If I am writing about another Reichs mystery you’ll know I gave into temptation.