Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Complete Stranger In the Drawing Room with the Candlestick

I just finished Cold Sight by Leslie Parrish. For the first time in memory, I actually enjoyed the mystery plot far more than the romantic plot - I actually skimmed much of the relationship stuff - up until the very end of the book. However, I'm very glad I read it because I learned something very important about the art of writing good, spine-tingling suspense.

The story is about reporter Lexie Nolan who is currently in the reporter dog house after an investigation she conducted of the disappearance of close to twenty teenage girls ended nowhere. Local law enforcement is not only unhelpful but downright hostile over Lexie's suggestions that their small town is anything but safe and that if the missing girls had been from the upper class side of town rather than from the Boro - on the wrong side of the tracks - perhaps they'd take her fears that a serial killer is at work seriously. Thankfully, Lexie has an extremely smart and understanding boss, and when he receives a tip about some human remains found just outside of town, he insists that Lexie get back on the case, especially since another girl, Vonnie, has just gone missing and there still might be time to help her.

Stuck at a dead end and with no help at all from the police chief, Lexie decides to seek out the help of disgraced psychic Aidan McConnell, a man who hates reporters on principle and based on his own bad experiences. After a search for a missing boy ended tragically, Aidan has determined never again to use his gifts as a means to find anyone since he doesn't want to be responsible for anyone else's fate or pain. At first he flat out refuses to even speak to Lexie, but slowly he finds himself compelled to help find the missing girl.

As Lexie and Aidan begin to dig into the town's dark history, they learn that the disappearance of teenage girls is only the tip of the iceberg. Prominent and supposedly upstanding citizens of the community have been engaging in acts of unspeakable evil for decades, and it appears that those missing girls are, indeed, the victims of a serial killer left to attack again and again. Lexie and Aidan race against the clock to solve the mystery while Vonnie's future becomes more and more uncertain.

Okay, going forward there are very mild SPOILERS, but if, given that this is a romantic suspense book and thus, by nature, builds on suspense and reader ignorance, those who don't want any ideas of what happens should stop reading now.

Like I mentioned above, the romance that develops between Lexie and Aidan was the aspect of the book that least compelled me. Honestly, whenever the story deviated from the search for Vonnie and the serial killer, I skimmed. I liked Lexie well enough as a character even if I found Aidan somewhat generic, but I had absolutely no interest or investment in whether or not these two found an HEA together.

I did, however, find the race to find the serial killer much more intriguing. Vonnie is given several POV passages, and I admired her determination to triumph over the psychopath who had snatched her off the street. Too, when another somewhat secondary character is brutally murdered, I found myself actually brought to tears which rarely ever happens to me when reading these types of books. I cared about the direct victims of the serial killer.

I found the somewhat secondary mystery about the depraved members of The Club to be unnecessary. Seems that a small town with a serial killer in residence has plenty of evil to keep everyone busy, thus having a group of men who engage in despicable acts has almost a kitchen sink feel to it. Too, a premise that rich deserves an entire book all its own.

My biggest quibble with the book, however, was the final reveal of who the serial killer turned out to be. I don't want to give the plot away, but the serial killer turned out to be a character who I felt came out of nowhere. This meant that there was no moment of shock, no sense that I'd come to know this character the way the townfolk had and never in a million years would have suspected that person of such horror. Honestly, the impact on learning the identity of the serial killer was no worse for me than if the serial killer had been a drifter who'd roamed into town and taken victims randomly instead of with deliberate perverseness and evil. Best I can describe it is some form of deus ex machina.

All of this has made me realize what a fine hand it takes to write such books well. There has to be a population of characters large enough to hide the villain in plain sight naturally, yet not so many people that the number of red herrings becomes ridiculous or you need a white board to chart who is related to whom and how. The reader needs a chance to meet the villain as he or she lives among normal people, needs to see him or her as the protagonists do as well as the darker side that allows him or her to engage in acts of pure evil.

Because that is the true spine-chilling aspect of any kind of crime novel - the idea that danger lurks in the most innocuous of places. That people we put our trust in can become the monsters that we fear the most. We all have heard the stranger danger lectures and hopefully have enough common sense to avoid walking alone at night in strange places, to lock our doors and windows, and to be aware of what goes on around us. It's when we have our guard down, when we are most vulnerable, and bad things happen that we feel the deepest sense of terror.

While Cold Sight kept me turning pages at a furious pace, I admit that in the end, I felt let down. The build up fizzled like a balloon pricked by a pin, and I was left wondering if I'd skipped over some key part where the serial killer had made an important appearance to let me know that they even existed in the story world.

In reading this book, I did learn something about the craft of storytelling, which is why writers need to be readers first and foremost.

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