Alternative to Murder by H.E. Joyce [Review]

                I love private investigator stories, and the general plot of the kidnapping of an heiress seemed like potential fun. But a good crime story needs plausibility, even with some allowance for suspension of reality as to the premise. It also needs well-drawn characters who make the reader root for (or against) somebody and care what happens. Unfortunately, this book is severely lacking in both key elements. Add in sloppy writing and a British author writing in British idiom about a Boston P.I. on the trial of U.S. kidnappers and the story becomes a chore to slog through rather than an enjoyable read.

                I can tolerate a lot of poetic license from authors, but I expect an author to do a small amount of thinking and research. Here, the bumbling amateur kidnappers somehow manage to stage a precision operation to snatch the heiress (Lindsay Nelson – no relation to the sports broadcaster, but owner of a media empire) despite the presence of her bodyguard. But from there, the plan is to drive her in a beat-up van 1000 miles to rural Georgia – to a small town where none of the kidnappers has any connection or knowledge, but where they somehow have located an abandoned cabin, where they will wait for Lindsay’s husband to deliver the $15 million ransom. The husband, Richard, hires the P.I., Frank, to accompany him, but insists over all advice to not involve the police. Richard then strolls into his local bank branch and obtains $15 million in cash and carries it away in two shoulder bags, after which he and Frank board a train at midnight in Boston, bound for Atlanta, where they will then switch to another train 24 hours later bound for a smaller town, then rent a car at the train station and drive 8 more hours to the tiny town where the kidnappers have instructed them to bring the money. (They have to take a train, because obviously they can’t fly with two “carry-all” bags filled with cash.)

                I won’t spoil any of the important parts of the story, but the above early plot illustrates the problem. No bank has $15 million in used bills (or new ones) in the vault to be withdrawn, even if the customer has an account – not that anybody has that kind of money in a bank account. And you can’t carry away that much cash. (That’s 1500 stacks of one hundred bills if they are all hundreds.) And no well-planned kidnapping (as this had to be in order to snatch Lindsay so cleanly as she left with her bodyguard from her gym) asks for that kind of money in cash. It would be wired to an off-shore bank account, then transferred out to another account before releasing Lindsay. And if you did want to get cash just a few days later, why go 1000 miles away? Why not find a suitably secluded spot in western Massachusetts (there are plenty) so Richard could deliver the money without taking a multi-day trip? And why choose a location you don’t know well? It makes no sense. Then, Richard and Frank’s trip to Georgia is described in ways that make no sense and don’t work with timing, geography, train schedules, driving distances, or common sense. The author seems to have never been on a U.S. train, or visited Georgia. Later, when things go sideways and Frank and Richard end up in a car chasing after the kidnappers and reach the border between Georgia and Louisiana – I lost it. The author couldn’t consult google maps to see that Louisiana is two states away from Georgia? There’s just no excuse for such sloppy writing. There are dozens of examples of this, ranging from not knowing the geography of Boston (the protagonist’s supposed home turf) to having their train stop at a station “south of Maryland” to having Frank and Richard rent (“hire”) a Chevy Impala at a train station at 3:30 a.m., to the locations where the characters hide their handguns (front pocket of their pants, or pocket of their “jacket” they happen to be wearing on a sweltering summer day in Texas). When one car speeds away down a dirt road from a scene, then another car follows 4-5 minutes later and immediately sees car #1 up ahead on the highway, it makes no sense. Reality plays no role in the narrative. Many of these small details are not essential to the story, but getting them wrong is distracting and annoying (and a few minutes of thought or research would have avoided many of them).

                The British style and language is out of place in this US-based story. I suppose this is written for a British audience that wants to read in the local dialect (and which won’t notice all the factual inaccuracies about the US locations). But for a US reader, it’s jarring and difficult to buy into. (The use of “yer” instead of “you” as the sole indicator of an accent for a Georgia hillbilly is particularly curious.) There are hundreds of instance of British-centric word usage, idiom, and perspective that will bother a US reader. The author also changes point-of-view frequently, often within the same chapter and even the same paragraph, leaving no clear perspective. The technical writing is also often sloppy with more editing errors than you normally see even in an independently published book. (A few of these could be British slang/usage that just seem wrong to a US reader.) Characters whose names were not supposed to be known suddenly have names, and after their names are know, they are referred to as “the other man.” The author really needs to get a proofreader/editor and if he insists on writing about events in the US, he needs to get some US-based beta readers who can school him on the language and geography.

All the above could be somewhat overlooked (or at least tolerated) if the story involved characters about whom we care. This is also sadly lacking. Frank is the main protagonist and the star of the series (this is book #2), but we know little about him. There is no explanation for why Frank, a former NYC homicide detective, moved to Boston to become a P.I. We know he has a female non-romantic friend and former client in Boston, but that’s it. He’s a big cigar smoker, overweight, and has a gun. Aside from those basics, Frank’s character has no depth and even halfway through the book the reader has no feelings about him. Richard, the husband and Frank’s client, is sullen and arrogant and is written to be unsympathetic from the outset. We don’t care whether he gets his wife back. Lindsay, the wife, is plucky, but also makes bizarre comments. We have little backstory on her and don’t really care whether she gets rescued. The head kidnapper, Jack, is a buffoon surrounded by two non-descript henchmen, and even the “redneck” who interrupts the (stupid) plan has no character other than being a stereotype southern gun-toting hick. There are no characters here to get emotionally attached to.

That leaves the “action” of the story as the only thing on which to focus. Such as it is, the action can’t carry the book – even if the action made sense, which it doesn’t. I can’t give many details without revealing plot points, but suffice to say that when eleven men with guns get into a confrontation over $15 million in cash and not one shot gets fired . . . the author is missing some obvious action. By mid-way through, I was just wishing it was over. The second half of the book provided nothing remotely plausible or interesting. The climax sequence was similarly implausible and lacked excitement. The big twist made everything that came before even more implausible and puzzling, rather than tying up loose ends. The author has no concept of what the geography and logistics are in the final sequence, and the underlying premise that all the characters were headed for a specific place – and they all somehow figured that out – made no sense at all.

I read this book for a reading group, so I was obligated to finish, but if I wasn’t obligated, I would have put this one aside after the first hundred pages and cut my losses. My advice is to avoid this one.

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