Thursday, July 10, 2014

Do the Bookaloo

Alex Grecian's first two novels of Scotland Yard's "Murder Squad" have been fun semi-Victorian romps through the London of the late 19th century. Inspector Walter Day and his ally Dr. Bernard Kingsley, an expert in the brand-new field of forensic pathology, use their brains to puzzle out clues and bring to heel those who would prey on the good -- and not-so-good -- folks of Great Britain's capital city.

Unfortunately Grecian dumps the mystery in his third Murder Squad outing, The Devil's Workshop, to try his hand at a ticking clock psychological thriller. A secret society in London has arrogated to itself the right to punish the city's worst criminals in a manner they feel is more fitting than simple incarceration. They plan a prison break to collect a few more inmates for their dungeon, but things go wrong and some of the worst offenders are now out and free. What's more, one of the dungeon's current inmates has found a way out -- and since Saucy Jack the Ripper was the reason the Murder Squad was invented, his return to the scene after a mysterious disappearance bodes ill for many.

The replacement of a mystery with a gore-splattered cat-and-mouse game between Day, Jack and the other escaped killers makes Workshop the weakest outing of the series by far. Its setup for an obvious sequel doesn't help, and the limited look at the London of HRH Victoria Regina drains it of one of the series' chief charms to date. That obvious sequel may be better than this outing or it may not, but even if it is that won't help Workshop be much better than just average.
Being a private investigator is not easy. But it can be repetitive. Just ask Josefina "Fina" Ludlow, a Boston P.I. who works for her wealthy family's law firm. Of course, Fina can also tell you that repetitive and maybe sometimes almost boring work doesn't preclude risking your neck, especially when you dig into things nobody wants dug.

Wellesley College grad Ingrid Thoft wanted to write more realistic novels about private investigating, so she got herself licensed as one. Her expertise brings significant realism to Identity, the second novel featuring Fina. One of her father's former clients, a single mother, wants to learn the identity of the donor she used to conceive her daughter. The clinic isn't likely to offer that information, so she wants them sued. In the meantime, Fina's father wants her to check things out as much as she can and see if she can learn who the donor was lawsuit or no. Fina's good at her job, so she learns who the man is. But that's where the problems start.

Thoft's realism does offer a kind of different slant on the P.I. genre, not unlike Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone. And she has a brash, witty style that she uses to good effect both in Fina's dialogue and in her narration; she might not have too hard a time trading quips with a couple of other smart-aleck Boston P.I.s. But in the end the repetitiveness of Fina's detecting -- ask this person some questions, ask another person some questions, ask a third person some questions, go back and ask the first person some more questions, lather, rinse, repeat -- needs some reduction. It wouldn't weigh things down so much if a lot of the rest of Fina's activities, such as her near-hourly intake of junk food, weren't also on a Möbius loop that probably adds a couple of pounds to the reader. Thoft wants to strike a balance between realism and interesting narrative and she probably will, but Identity shows she has some work ahead of her in doing so.

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