Shifting Sands

This book got good reviews, which is a mystery to me. This review may have some spoilers. Private Investigator Dan Lord is investigating the suspicious deaths on the same night of his nephew and sister in law. Of course the police won’t believe both were murdered and when they finally do Dan becomes the main suspect.

Every cliche of the hard boiled detective novel is present; the eccentric, reclusive computer expert who performs tasks at a cost, the old love interest, the whore with a heart, Russian spies, strip clubs, the attractive female sidekick with a dodgy past, renegade government spooks knocking off civilians, the honest detective, shady government/ corporate deals and so on.

This tired and predictable plot would be fine if the protagonist was worth our interest and admiration. Unfortunately the action unfolds and events happen largely as a result of Dan’s incompetence. He apparently does exhaustive background checks on everyone in his life but accepts the new “intern” at face value, without doing the most basic checks. He is wrong about the identity of people he does check up on, which makes all his high tech office security superfluous. Despite people being slaughtered with alarming regularity after talking to him about his nephew and sister in law’s death, it never occurs to Dan to warn people or provide for their protection – with predictable results. The body count mounts. He does other dumb stuff too but it seems unkind to keep labouring the point.

There’s lots of boring macho scenes where Lord gets to show us he can fight, including a 4 page description of a fight with a student in a dojo that was extraneous to the plot. This is 243 pages in! We know the Dick can fight! Maybe it’s just me, but I find fights boring to read and too many of them will see me skipping pages like a speed reader on acid. I also skimmed the pages of detail about tracking cell phone messages or signals or something equally dull.

Some of the writing is cluttered with cliches such as, “His nose had always been good. Always. His gut rarely failed….But Dan had a nose. a gut. He usually saw what was coming before it turned the corner. It was a watered down version of a sixth sense, the capability of looking at the pieces of a puzzle and fitting them together to see the bigger picture” Seven cliches in 2 sentences. I would like to think the author is doing it on purpose and giving us all a sly wink but I doubt it.

The resolution to the plot occurs largely because facts the protagonist knows or learns as events unfold are withheld from the reader, which means we have no real chance of solving the mystery ourselves. This breaks one of the cardinal rules of mystery writing, although by the time I speed read to the end I didn’t really care. I guessed the nephew’s mystery illness a few pages in. The reader is not told what the illness is until the end of the book, although Dan obviously knows the whole time. Sneaky bastard.

Withholding information from the reader (that the protagonist knows) is a lazy (but common) way to plot a mystery/action novel and tends to annoy people like me who read a lot of this genre. Good examples of mystery/action novels that allow the reader to make discoveries along with the protagonist (so we empathise with them) is the Jason Bourne Series by Robert Ludlum or the Sam Capra books by Jeff Abbott.

It is not enough to continually put the protagonist in suspenseful situations and have appalling things happen to them. To be effective this escapist genre requires the reader to feel we are going along with the protagonist for the wild, crazy ride. Great genre writers achieve this by allowing us to feel what the protagonist feels and share in the discoveries as they happen. Escapist literature of all types (romance, crime, thrillers etc) often have plots that strain credulity, but we read on because we are allowed to enter the inner world of the main characters and live vicariously through them. We can’t do that if the protagonist “withholds” information from us until the end of the book. We can end up feeling cheated or tricked, which would have been my feelings if I had invested more energy in reading this book.

I don’t usually do bad reviews. Most books have something of interest and a few good points. Mark Gilleo is a competent writer with the crisp style I prefer. In my assessment, he needs to keep faith with the reader and bring us along on the ride, not throw us out the bus at crucial points along the road.



Post a comment
  1. Patricia Toovey #
    September 19, 2015

    Great stuff. Madonna. Unfortunately, this type of crime/murder writing makes me stick to the tried and tested PD James, Rendell, and George.


  2. September 19, 2015

    An insightful and sometimes humorous review with pointers I can learn from.
    I could feel your annoyance. I suppose there would be readers who enjoy the things that drove you up the wall. 🙂


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