by Giles Blunt
Random House, 2005
And now for something completely different. Also, I'm back to keeping track of my editions and page numbers, after a completely inexplicable lapse.
I'm not going to be reviewing all the books I'm reading for the upcoming training retreat, because to be frank, I am not reading them all terribly thoroughly. I am skipping through a bunch of them very quickly in an effort to get through the list in time. I figure it's better to have a taste of more of them than an in-depth knowledge of only a few of them. Well, and if I'm being honest, almost none of the books on the list were books I would ever consider picking up on my own; and while it is a good thing to read outside of my comfort zone every once in a while, there are good reasons that some of those would never have made it onto my list. I'm a pretty good judge of what puts me off a book. And as far as I can tell, I will never be a chick lit fan, for example, and a half-reading of Marion Keyes' Anybody Out There? has not convinced me otherwise. I can see why people like it, but I just don't.
I thought I would review this one for sure because I read the first half very closely, and only stopped reading it as though I would a normal book when ... well, I'll get to that in the review. Blunt is also an author I've been quite interested in, and would eventually have picked up on my own. I'll read more of him, too, if this book is any indication.
The mystery starts with a red-haired woman no one has seen before wandering out of the woods and into a bar in the small city of Algonquin Bay, confused and suffering from amnesia. When she's taken to hospital and examined, it turns out she can't remember anything because she's been shot in the head; the bullet is lodged in her brain. John Cardinal and Lisa Delorme take on the case. And then the body count starts with the discovery of a horribly, possibly ritually mutilated body and the suspicion that perhaps the two cases are connected. Heroin, biker gangs, maggots and strange shamans are all tangled up together in a case where nothing is quite as it seems.
The mystery itself is pretty interesting, but what got me hooked to start was the characters. We don't meet any of the mains other than the amnesiac redhead in the first scene; in fact, it takes place in the eyes of a character we never see again. The first scene is absolutely brilliant, I think, and remains my favourite part of the whole book. The writing is very good throughout; it is intense, occasionally funny, perfectly concise without being choppy or losing any description. Most of the characters are sympathetic and interesting, with enough depth to be believable. The first half of the story was so engaging that I literally did not hear someone calling my name at one point while I was reading.
The other thing I really liked was the humanity of the mystery, the decency of the characters involved. Some of the things that happen are pretty horrific (I'll get to this in a second; first spoiler warning) but the sheer likability and humility of John Cardinal and Lisa Delorme, combined with their careful, methodical and believable unraveling of clues, makes the other bearable. The way Cardinal deals with a situation with his wife Catherine throughout was so tender and honest that I couldn't help but become invested not only in him solving the mystery, but in him as a person.
The book began to lose me in a couple of ways, though. First of all, one of the perspectives we get is of Kevin, a small-time heroin dealer and aspiring poet who is, as we discover slowly, in the thick of things. I think he was supposed to be a sympathetic character, and I guess he was, because watching his storyline was like watching a train wreck in slow motion, pretty much from the moment we meet him. The reader knows that things are going to go south pretty quickly, but Kevin is both obtuse and willfully blind, and while that's realistic it was also really frustrating and somewhat stressful to read.
And then we also get some chapters from the perspective of the murderer, which always bugs me for two reasons: 1) I've never liked spending time in deranged, murderous minds, and 2) it spoils the mystery. We now know who is responsible, rather than having a couple of pretty good guesses. I know some people like this sort of thing, that the mystery and interest comes from seeing if the detectives can figure it out, and if they can figure it out in time; but me, it stresses me out.
I don't read to be stressed out. I guess this means I'm not a big fan of suspense/thriller novels.
And finally, I can't discuss why I lost interest without discussing this -- one of the things I was enjoying at the beginning was that the crimes and criminals were ostensibly pretty run-of-the-mill; drug running and rival gangs. Ugly stuff, no doubt, but believable and all the more fascinating to me because of their ordinariness and frightening in their banality. Cardinal and Delorme plod their way through the correct procedures, gathering evidence and consulting experts.
But then it all goes a little bit sideways. It starts out slowly, so one realizes that there might (or might not) be an element of the supernatural in this. This question is never resolved entirely, for which I am glad. But it elevates the ordinariness of the criminal activity to extraordinary evil, the run-of-the-mill storyline to something so weird and horrifying that it was, for me, overload. It was just too much. It was almost a little cliched -- "Look at how AWFUL this guy is! Look at how EVIL!" There are scenes that are there expressly to make us understand just how twisted the murderer is, and also possibly how supernaturally powerful he is.
That's where I lost interest. The stakes were suddenly unbelievably high, for the story I had started reading, and so I started skipping and flipping through to read the parts about Cardinal and Delorme, and to leave the other perspectives out. Because I did want to know what happened to Cardinal especially, and I did, of course, want to know if they got the bastard.
So, I would recommend this one to people who really like suspense novels, those who enjoy crime novels from multiple perspectives, for fans of police procedurals (that part was extremely well done) and for whom character matters. It wasn't exactly my cup of tea, in the end, but I wouldn't hesitate to pick up another Cardinal and Delorme mystery if it were to come my way.