This past two weeks I’ve read three books through to the last page, put several hours into four others (which will remain nameless) that were too disappointing to finish, and came to the sorry conclusion that starting with the first in a ‘new’ mystery series might sometimes be a mistake.
If I haven’t dashed your hopes for this post, what follows is a bit of an explanation. I’ll be relatively brief.
Here’s the three ‘first of a series’ books I read start to finish:
- Chris Brookmyre’s first Catherine McLeod/Jasmine Sharp mystery Where the Bodies are Buried
- Jim Kelly’s original Phillip Dryden mystery, The Water Clock
- Harry Bingham’s first Fiona Griffiths mystery Talking to the Dead
I wasn’t familiar with anything by either Jim Kelly or Harry Bingham, and had only read one of Brookmyre’s, but had heard good things about all three.
My main criteria for these reads were that they feature reportedly ‘moody sleuths’ and be ‘first of a series’ mysteries. The third criterion was arbitrary: I was looking for series set in Britain. (I’ll get around to North America eventually.)
Chris Brookmyre: Where the Bodies are Buried
Chris Brookmyre has produced several installments in a couple of series, the most popular featuring Jack Parlabane, and another featuring one featuring one Angelique de Xavia. I’ve read a few chapters here and there of the former, but it was a stand alone mystery, A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil, that boosted my expectations for his new series; it was an exceptional read combining a compelling story with excellent writing.
I was pleased to note Brookmyre’s distinctive style in the first chapter of Where the Bodies are Buried:
There was a sweetness in the air, scents from the trees you never smelled in the cold and rain, mixed with the charcoal and cooked meat of a thousand barbecues wafting from the city below, warm smoke, warm smells borne on warm air.
No, it really didn’t seem like Glasgow at all. Apart from the guy lying on the deck in the advanced stages of a severe kicking. That was as authentically local as haggis suppers and lung cancer.
The narrative in Chapter two introduces Jasmine Sharp, a former acting student, now a rather naive and very insecure newbie private investigator whose boss (her Uncle Jim) soon goes missing. When the cops show little interest in searching for him, Jasmine pulls herself together and with her recently learned investigative skills, tentatively starts looking into her uncle’s recent cases, hoping to find out what happened to him.
In chapter three the narrative switches to Detective Superintendent Catherine McLeod, married, mother of two young children, and an experienced cop investigating a gangland killing. Thereafter the narratives more or less alternate, inevitably coming together as the bodies mount up and the stakes get higher, as they say.
So, what’s my complaint?
Don’t like to put it so bluntly, but I just couldn’t take Jasmine Sharp seriously, nor could I drum up any sympathy for Catherine McLeod’s fretting about keeping her much younger husband from straying. (Frankly, I’m not in the least bit interested in whether or not they have a sex life.)
I’d figured out who was who in Jasmine’s first mystery several chapters before the reveal, and found at least one of the situations Brookmyre put her in annoyingly reminiscent of scenes from so-called ‘women’s novels.’
Okay, I read Where the Bodies are Buried to the end, I didn’t toss it away in disgust; lots of good stuff there. It’s just that I kept feeling like the writer had dumbed things down and was working too hard to create characters who might attract a wrongly perceived, less-discerning female readership: make one a mom, give her a working mom’s worries, toss in some relationship issues women can relate to… am I being to harsh?
I’ll answer that in a few minutes. In the mean time, lets move on.
Jim Kelly: The Water Clock
I liked this book a lot, the sense of place most of all, but I didn’t find the main character all that intriguing, nor likeable… mostly just exasperating. Philip Dryden is troubled, no doubt, but in this first book he seems to be a catch-all of neuroses, and some of his odd behaviours, like foraging for “a miniature pork pie, the remnants of a quarter-pound of button mushrooms, and an untouched half-pound of wine gums” in his seemingly bottomless coat pockets, are plain silly.
And the fact that Dryden is deathly afraid of the water, as a result of a childhood accident, yet chooses to live on the fens aboard an ancient boat, seems to stretch the detective-with-eccentricities formula a bit too far.
Harry Bingham: Talking to the Dead
As with Kelly’s book, I found a lot to like about Harry Bingham’s first series mystery featuring Fiona Griffiths: complex plot, lots of action… and I like the protagonist. To describe Fiona as ‘unusual’ is an understatement; she’s quite bizarre. Maybe too. That’s the issue.
So, to answer that question I posed back in the Brookmyre bit: Am I being too harsh?
I gave it some thought and decided that, yes, I am.
I’ve noted that when publishers of foreign books deign to have their popular mystery writer’s works translated, they often begin with one that’s later in the series. We get the protagonist as he or she has ‘evolved’, after the author has had a chance to work out the bumpy bits and develop a more fully formed and believable character. Sometimes those ‘first in the series’ books are never translated. (I believe there are at least two early Inspector Erlendur by Arnaldur Indridason from 1997/98 that remain untranslated.)
Perhaps for good reason.
Not time wasted then. We’ll call it a learning experience. I’ve not scratched potential moody sleuths Jasmine Sharpe, Catherine McLeod, Philip Dryden, or Fiona Griffiths off my list. They’re all on reprieve until I get my eyes on one or more of their more recent incarnations.
In the mean time, I’ve discovered Jason Webster’s police detective Max Camara series set in Valencia, Spain. I’m currently reading the first in the series, Or the Bull Kills You.
But I’ll be gentle. Promise.
Next Moody Sleuth Tuesday – 02 July 2013