Sunday, December 1, 2013

Three Strikes

Newspapering in the 21st century is a precarious position, and a reporter who's growing up in the shadow of his late father, one of the last of the great roving investigative journalists, doesn't have it any easier. The thinned-out modern version of the craft he practices makes it even more difficult to live up to the accomplishments of someone who worked when news, newsgathering and news consumption were still considered important parts of the U.S. political and cultural arena.

So Chris Turley knows he's "lucky" to be near a building explosion and able to both save people and report on it when the building blows up while he's waiting to meet a source. The source doesn't show, but opportunity does, and it begins to send Chris up the ladder of journalistic prominence. The source offers another anonymous tip that brings front page work for him, but it also starts to bring the attention of law enforcement at both local and federal levels. Is Chris doing more than just report the news? And when the source turns out to have plans of his own, will Chris's next byline be in the obituaries?

Rosenfelt offers a little commentary on the role of media as his reporter character quickly becomes the story instead of reports on it -- modern news media has at least as much to do with entertainment as it does information and many of its highest-profile practitioners owe more to their profiles than their practice. But his story is jumbled and clich├ęd, his villain's abilities more than a little preposterous and his "shocking twist" pretty obvious from early on. He gives Wire a healthy helping of wry through Chris and his newsroom colleagues in a way that rings pretty true, but the flaws with the basic story outline and implausibility issues send him to an interior page behind the real estate ads.
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With The Chalk Girl, Carol O'Connell's signature character Kathy Mallory became a little less quirky and a little more annoying, as did O'Connell's story about her. In the new It Happens in the Dark, things go pretty much completely off the rails. O'Connell seems to lose control of her plot, characters and storyline early on and never regains it. Mallory herself is less of a character in the story than a cipher the other characters react to -- usually in awe or fear or moonie puppy-dog crush.

The story concerns a murder -- or is it? -- at the performance of a play, happening on a night which followed someone else in the audience dying. Mallory has to investigate the weird world of actors, playwrights, critics, stagehands and producers, and her notable lack of patience for ordinary folks is stretched thin by the eccentric theater crowd. Stir in a decades-old mystery surrounding a family murdered in their home, and you have a knot that Lt. Columbo would have looked at and said, "I'm putting in for vacation."

A half-dozen rereads are required to know what goes on every dozen pages, and the payoff is meager enough to be worthy of very little of that work. Mallory fans showed a lot of disappointment with Chalk Girl, and it's hard to imagine O'Connell winning many of them back with the gooey mess she offers in Happens.
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Fortunately for thriller writers, history has no shortage of mysterious circumstances surrounding well-known figures, and the abundance allows for some variety in their central conspiracy/cover-up/espionage whatever. Englishman Scott Mariani takes on some of the questions surrounding the early death of famed composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in his second Ben Hope novel, The Mozart Conspiracy.

Ben is a former British special forces soldier who now makes a living as a sort of principled mercenary and security specialist. He will take on some pretty rough jobs, but only when the lives of innocents are at stake -- at which point all bets for the perpetrators are off. When the sister of an old Army buddy calls him saying she thinks her brother's death wasn't the accident everyone claims and that someone now seems to be targeting her, Ben will be drawn in to a shadowy world where a cabal of wealthy power-players seek to expand their reach -- and protect it from prying eyes. Does the buddy's book project -- an investigation into Mozart's death -- have something to do with the plot? And will the forces that seemed aligned against the composer now target Ben?

Mozart is strictly paint-by-numbers thriller writing. It edges out Dan Brown by having better writing and less inaccuracy, but Mariani basically changes Mozart to MacGuffin and skips any chance to weave the world of music, composition and history into his story. The Army buddy was a pianist and his sister sings opera, but they could have had any other jobs and affected the plot not at all.

The rote characterizations, rote recitations of those in the shadows moving the levers of political power and threatening those who would expose them, rote scenery and rote action set pieces do almost nothing to help The Mozart Conspiracy convince a reader to take more time with Ben Hope thrillers, and the nasty ending Mariani tacks on wrecks whatever minor goodwill he may have built up.

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