Friday, April 15, 2011
Atkinson takes the police/detective novel and turns it inside out. Mysteries happen, of course, there are murders, there is police procedure, there are even solutions. But the mysteries themselves are less important as mysteries than as ways to illuminate and examine the lives of the people around them. Her books peel away the layers that surround human lives and examine what is left.
Maybe this sounds pretentious, but that's only because I can't articulate how she does what she does in a pithy way. But what she is doing is what Tana French is also doing--exploring the form and tropes of the detective format and using it to do something that operates in a different universe than Dan Brown.
Let's get to spoiling right away, shall we? Because honestly, the plot is only the engine for what else Atkinson is doing.
Start with Jackson Brodie, the former police officer and the nominal protagonist of this and three previous Atkinson books. Brodie lost almost everything in the last book, When Will There Be Good News? He was literally resuscitated after a train derailment, he discovered that his wife had been a scam artist, who had married him and lived with him only as long as it took her to clear out his substantial bank account. Everything about her had been a lie, including her name. Now he is effectively homeless, and certainly rootless, driving around England ostensibly while doing investigative work for a woman in New Zealand who wants to find her birth parents. It is not a coincidence that her life is faked too. The birth certificate is forged, the names of the birth parents were invented. It seems like the truth was buried in Leeds, and the person who might have the answers is a social worker named Linda Palliser.
Linda Palliser doesn't want to talk to Brodie, however. She literally takes the first flight out of town and remains out of communication for the rest of the novel. Because she doesn't dare tell anyone the truth. So Brodie has to figure things out on his own.
The second major protagonist of the book is a woman named Tracy Waterhouse. Tracy was a new constable in 1975 on the West Yorkshire police force, and a recent retiree from the force. She was always a big girl, and made her career by being "one of the boys." She never married, had no family, no social life. So, of course, she went into private security, working for a shopping mall in Leeds. One fateful day, she sees one too many children in jeopardy, and she impulsively intercedes. The child's mother is a prostitute and drug addict well known to the police, and Tracy can't stand watching the 4 year old child being dragged and berated across the mall. She has a large sum of cash, to pay the Polish builder who is renovating her kitchen, and impulsively she offers the cash in exchange for the child. The mother grabs the money, hops on a bus, and disappears.
Despite spending her entire adult life as a law enforcer, Tracy immediately acts like a criminal and more or less goes on the run with the child. Does this make sense? I mean, logically, does it make sense that a 50 year old police superintendent would really think that by handing a wad of cash to a drug addict and taking custody of a neglected child from a visibly unfit parent, that she had somehow actually bought the kid? Does she really think that she has descended to the same moral level as kidnappers and pedophiles? Does Atkinson really expect us to buy this complete 180 of behavior?
Well, no, not really. Because Atkinson is operating in a gray area between realism and metaphor. She sets up the plausibility of the situation--Tracy Waterhouse was stinted of love herself, both as a child and as an adult, and she had plenty of traumatic experiences as a police officer, seeing children threatened, abused, and murdered. So the reader can understand why she might just reach a breaking point and snap, deciding on nothing more than an emotional compulsion that this child she would save, to stand in for all the children she couldn't (or didn't) save in the past.
While it is less believable that she would then immediately consider herself to be a criminal for doing so, and run from her home, change her name, and generally skulk around rather than being the powerful force of confrontation she was throughout her career. But Atkinson isn't interested so much in Tracy's character as she is in Tracy's situation--the sudden change of you world, the madness that is parental love, the way the inclusion of a child into your life fundamentally changes who you are.
There are parallels throughout the story--couples who struggle with infertility, women who struggle with unwanted pregnancy, a police officer whose daughter ends up in a persistent vegetative state after her husband causes an auto accident while drunk, that also kills their infant son. There are bad parents, abusive parents, stingy parents, drug addicted parents, and the tragedy that not all the children can be saved, and not all of them manage to overcome the bad hands they are dealt. The woman Tracy "buys" the little girl off of has other children, all the rest of whom have been placed in foster care. One of them we later see on the streets, working as a prostitute.
On the other hand, some children manage remarkably well. The tragic story of Michael Braithwaite, for example, has a good enough ending, although we don't get the full story until the end of the book. The book opens in 1975, when the young Tracy Waterhouse and her partner Ken Ackerman are called to a block of flats by reports of a horrible smell. Ken looks through the mail slot, then breaks down the door. A prostitute by the name of Carol Braithwaite has been killed in her flat, and her 4 year old son was trapped inside with the body for nearly three weeks, subsisting on what food he could find. He couldn't open the door, couldn't get people to notice him in the window of the unit. Tracy picked him up to soothe him, and broke her heart. There was some sort of cover-up, and Michael was taken away by Linda Pallister and disappeared.
At the end we learn that he was placed in a Catholic orphanage under a different name, but when he turned 18 he was given his true name and turned loose on the world. He made a small fortune in dealing scrap metal, married, and has a normal suburban life of wife, three kids, and barbeques. So, yay? Sometimes things do work out?
But it's the convoluted, the ass-covering, the misery that Atkinson feasts on. Back in 1975, what really happened? One of the cops on the force where Tracy worked had been using Carol Braithwaite as a prostitute, and then she got pregnant and used the baby as a leverage for money, ultimately pressuring the cop (named Len Lomax) to leave his wife and marry her. Poor Michael was the result of a previous liaison, four to Lomax daughter's two, and wanted to think of Lomax as "Daddy." In fact, was probably encouraged to do so by Carol as part of her desperate and bi-polar desire for normalcy. She pushed him one too many times, however, threatening to confront his (desperately childless) wife, and in his anger he throttled her to death.
The boys' club of the police rallied around him, got the little girl out of the flat and gave her to a (desperately childless) pediatrician and his (botched-abortion infertile) wife, who promptly lit out for New Zealand. Lomax didn't mention the boy, who was locked in from the outside and managed to keep himself alive until the smell of the decomposing body got the neighbors to call. And broke Tracy's heart. Also broke the heart of one of the other cops, the low level Ray Strickland who was sent to fetch the girl and bring her to the doctor. He left the boy behind, unwilling to ask questions or volunteer information--he'd been told his career might depend on it. He also questioned his own behavior--why not take the baby girl and bring her home to his own (desperately childless) wife? Or the boy? He didn't do either--two chances for happiness he wasted.
Tracy was left for years to believe something wrong had happened. She noticed that the door had been locked from the outside, she noticed that Lomax and Strickland knew the layout of the flat before they should have. Plus, she asked after Michael Braithwaite, with a vague intention of raising him herself. She was told to stop asking questions, and that the directive came from "above." Cops worked with criminals who had connections to cover up, fake passports, keep their careers on track while deeply compromising their own integrity.
In many ways, Atkinson is a chilly writer--this book especially is more about ideas and themes than flesh and blood characters. We have people who have children and don't want them, people who don't have children and do want them, people who have children and are deeply ambivalent about their ability to raise them, people who are doting parents, indifferent parents, cold parents, unfit parents, parents who are doing their best with limited skills. . .a range of parent-child relationships, past and present, from both the adult and the child perspectives. There is quite a lot of background --not directly dramatized--about the things Tracy Waterhouse has seen done to children in the course of her police work, that makes her cynical, angry and hurt on behalf of those vulnerable children. We see the well-intentioned Jackson Brodie being flummoxed by his daughter's teen-aged behavior, his groping toward a relationship with his own four-year old son and the difficult woman he loves but can't be with.
Brodie also manages to acquire a dog, in a plot that parallels Tracy's story. He sees the dog running off leash in a park, which is then corralled by a brute who uses a noose instead of a leash, who kicks the dog then throws it into the boot of the car. Brodie is so incensed that he punches the guy in the solar plexus and takes the dog. He then smuggles the dog around England in a rucksack, learning the rules of dog ownership in a parody of the way Tracy is learning to be a mother. It's a formal device that has some resonance, but doesn't really work. It doesn't really illuminate Brodie's character, and it doesn't really serve as commentary on how society treats children like dogs. It did rather undermine my empathy for Tracy, to find that even she didn't treat her new-found child like a person so much as a difficult accessory. Like a pet, in fact.
This is really a rambling review, in part because there is so much stuffed into this book. I haven't even mentioned the Jackson Brodie doppelganger--another character who hovers ominously around the book, always a step or two ahead or behind Jackson and Tracy. In the end he is revealed to be a "Brian Jackson," a private detective who was hired by Michael Braithwaite to find his parents, again, paralleling Brodie's search. This allows for some of the plot to be driven by other characters confusing the two names. Tracy thinks both the Jacksons are going to turn her in for kidnapping, when they just want to know what she knows about Carol Braithwaite. So Atkinson is wrestling with doubling and tripling of her themes, which is intellectually intriguing if a little cold emotionally.
But Atkinson can do emotionally affecting work! She can! And for that, I point to her wonderful C plot character, Matilda "Tilly" Squires, a character actress whose mind is shredding with early onset Alzheimer's. She works on preposterous police television series, flitting back and forth between her own chilly upbringing, the baby and good man she lost through the officious meddling of her "friend," and her own sinking awareness of her vanishing present. Plotwise, poor Tilly is a bit of disaster, hanging off the main storyline like a loose thread, and then brought in as deus ex machina to finish off the bad guy and let Tracy escape. But I'll excuse that, for the wonderful way Atkinson brings her mental deterioration to vivid life. Honestly, it's heartbreaking and infuriating, and precisely the kind of well crafted character I wish we could have had more of in this book.
Not that I'm exactly complaining--it's a fascinating book, intricately plotted, with layers of meaning playing off against each other, raising the ongoing challenge of how our culture treats children. Atkinson also liberally sprinkles the pages with ruminations on poetry and how it illuminates our lives. The title is taken from a poem by Emily Dickenson, and Brodie finds himself brooding (Brodie/brooding--I don't think that's a coincidence either) on her poems. Tilly Squires finds herself pulling up quotes from the Shakespeare plays she's been in her whole life. Poetry, fiction, cultural mores--Atkinson has stuffed this book full of ideas. It's well worth reading.
Monday, April 11, 2011
As a result of one of those letters, Reggie is now broke--he personal assets were eaten by his obligations to Lloyd's of London and his participation in the insurance syndicate that covered the Bad Guys in the previous book. His legal practice has also suffered, and he is down to a single employee--a secretary/clerk/administrator who doesn't have much to do because there are no cases coming in. The Sherlock letters still arrive, however, and as Reggie wants to have nothing to do with them, he packs them up and mails them to Nigel to answer.
(Incidentally, does this make any sense? No, it doesn't. Nigel is supposed to reply to each letter with a form provided by Dorset House, and then archive the letters at Dorset House. He has neither of these things in LA, because Dorset House is where Reggie's chambers are, and where Reggie has a secretary with nothing to do. So why does he do this? So Nigel can have some presence in this book?)
Reggie's personal life remains unresolved. He's been dating the gorgeous and successful actress Laura Henson for some time, but can't seem to be anything but a douche about it. (This has now become a character trait for him as far as I am concerned.) Laura has left London, and is currently in Phuket filming a movie. She has also been seeing the fabulously wealthy media mogul Lord Buxton, who owns a particularly annoying London tabloid. As the story begins, this tabloid has published a picture of Laura and an unidentified man together in Phuket, and the man's hand is doing something to her bikini top that seems to involve some intimate contact.
Reggie recognizes the hand as belonging to Lord Buxton, so he promptly goes to Buxton's enormous media headquarters and punches the man in the face. This is captured by a photographer and published the next day. Reggie may be a barrister, but he really isn't very smart, is he? He also doesn't seem to ever consider that this kind of obnoxiousness is why Laura is choosing to spend time with Buxton rather than him. Because god forbid that a woman have any agency when it comes to relationships. Douche.
Anyway--an aggressively good looking solicitor shows up at Reggie's chambers with a brief for him. Her client is a cabbie, a driver of the iconic Black Cabs of London, and he's been accused of murdering a pair of American tourists. This is a major problem for London, as well as all the other cabbies, because Black Cabs are known for their absolute safety and their drivers' encyclopedic knowledge of London. Their reputation is threatened by these murders, as well as by a series of robberies that led up to this outrage. This is the kind of case that--if Reggie wins it--will bring him so much publicity that he could bounce back to his old busy legal practice. Plus, there is an obligation (we are told) that barristers are like taxi drivers at a cab stand--they are required to take the next fare that presents itself.
But Reggie, in addition to being a douche, is also a prig. (There! Multifaceted character development!) He won't take the case unless he is personally convinced that the client is innocent. See, it all goes back to his childhood. . .and here we find ourselves adopting a ridiculous German accent and playing Freud. Because Dad took little Reggie to a football game, to which he insisted on wearing the cap of his beloved Man U team. Sadly, however, their seats were in the opposing teams section, and when Man U lost, the footie hooligans stole his cap, Dad snatched it back, fist fights broke out, and somehow Dad ended up arrested, which somehow caused him to lose his painting business and his will to live and life became dark and short. So little Reggie grew up determined to become a barrister so he could protect innocent men like his Dad and correct the balance of the universe. Again--he really lost his house painting business because of a footie scuffle?
Well, Our Little Prig Reggie has to meet the client, whose name is Walters, and learn about his life long dream to be a Black Cabbie, and how nothing else in the world is like it, and how much money he has had to invest to become one, and all the Secret and Arcane Knowledge of the Benevolent Order Of Black Cabbies and Freemasons. Which is to say, Walters needed cash, so has a motive for the robberies, but he loves his job so much he wouldn't do anything to jeopardize it.
Reggie is unsure. Is cab driving really such a great job? Is it really like all the work he had to do to become a barrister? So while riding in a Black Cab to another appointment, he casually chats up the driver and so becomes convinced that Walters must be innocent! He will take the case! Justice will be served!
Yes, by this kind of logic, finding one man who loves his wife and would never murder her brutally with a dull kitchen blade means that there are no abusive husbands or wife-murderers.
So, back to chambers Reggie goes, to try to find a defense for Walters, the Tragic Cabbie. What is the case against? Well, if you are going to make a habit of holding up your fares, murdering them and then dumping the bodies, it's probably not a good idea to have a vanity license plate that is easily identifiable and memorable. Which Walters has, and which was in fact seen and remembered by two separate sets of eyewitnesses. One of whom even called the police to report reckless driving by that cabbie. Walters' alibi? He was already home, alone, so he couldn't have done it.
But wait! There is a new letter to Sherlock, signed by "Moriarty" which gives Reggie an idea! Check the traffic/security CCTV cameras to confirm Walters' claim that he was driving home to the other side of London at the time of the murders. And in front of a clearly skeptical judge, the tapes show the distinctive cab with the memorable license plate somewhere completely else from the crime scene! Walters is released until trial! That night, more eyewitnesses see a Black Cab with the same license plate stopped on a bridge over the Thames, dumping a body into the river! What has Reggie done? Has he loosed a murderer from custody only so he can kill again?
The good looking solicitor, Darla Rennie, places a frantic call to Reggie--something is wrong with our client! You must go to his home and meet me there! Reggie goes, finds the front door ajar, no sign of Darla. He cautiously enters, finds the gold Rolex watch taken from the murdered American tourist sitting in a bag in the front parlor. He follows the sound of machinery through the flat to the laundry room in the back, where Walters is lying dead, bloody shirt indicating he was stabbed. Of course Reggie opens the washing machine to see what is inside, because. . .Plot Requirement. There is the long kitchen knife that was the murder weapon, and a pair of wineglasses in the washing machine--presumably to remove the finger prints. Reggie, having as much sense as god gave a rock, pulls out the knife to look at it and cuts himself on the broken wineglass. All so that when the police arrive, he can be standing over the corpse, holding the murder weapon and dripping blood. Because that's how you prepare a case for trial in England.
Reggie gets arrested, and Laura comes to his rescue, bringing Nigel back from LA. He immediately makes a connection between the unhinged letters to Sherlock Holmes written by "Moriarty" and concludes that Reggie is being targeted by a mad person who has become convinced that Reggie is actually Sherlock Holmes and has to pay for killing his/her ancestor at Reichenbach Falls. He goes to chambers, and finds Darla Rennie's business card wedged between the cushions of an office chair, and it is also drenched in perfume, which Nigel remembers as belonging to someone who was in his therapy group the previous year when he took some time off for a rest cure/nervous breakdown. (We don't know the specifics of this, despite it being referenced in both books. Fodder for future books, probably.) Fortunately, he can identify this woman by her legs, and realizes that Darla Rennie isn't actually a solicitor, but probably somebody with a grudge out to get Reggie.
Yes, this is truly what is happening. Poor schizophrenic Darla has been taken off her meds for nefarious purposes by her doctor, leading her to lapse into the delusion that she is the great-great-granddaughter of Professor Moriarty, and that Sherlock Holmes killed her ancestor, then discovered cryogenics, preserving himself for nearly two centuries in order to come back as a London barrister. This delusion is then hastily cobbled together with her jealous hatred of Black Cabs, since she wanted to be a driver but was cursed with no sense of direction.
But wait! There's more to the plot! Because the treating psychiatrist is also a software entrepreneur who is trying to sell a system of GPS devices to be installed in Black Cabs! Which the cabbies totally oppose, since it messes with their foundational mythos. Why devote yourself to the Knowledge if you can have a computer installed that does it for you? But in a further twist, the proposed GPS has surveillance video and audio, so anything talked about in the back of a cab--stock tips, celebrity misbehavior, ordinary indescretions--can be recorded and used for insider trading, blackmail and/or sold to tabloids! Because there are actually three Black Cabs with the same distinctive vanity license plates, and two of them were used for crimes while Walters was paid to drive a route that would establish a CCTV alibi!
There is another murder of a co-conspirator, there is the discovery of the second Black Cab with the same license plate which was driven into the Thames, but discovered at low tide. (Why didn't they just remove the license plate? Plot Requirement I guess.) Reggie gets out of prison and goes to confront the doctor/GPS developer, ends up being held at gun point, figures out the surveillance scheme, and then watches in horror! as Laura gets into the third cab run by the Bad Guys. And Darla's the driver! And she is going to murder Laura to exact revenge on Sherlock/Reggie, by driving the cab off the Tower Bridge while it opens to let a ship through.
There is a problem with this part of the plan, however, because Laura is never going to just sit passively in the back and ride to her doom, nor is it clear how Darla was going to escape being killed at the same time. But! it's cinematic! The iconic Black Cab straddling the gap as the Tower Bridge rises open! Laura, the gorgeous actress dangling from the tip of the bridge before losing her grip and sliding down the angled roadway! The Black Cab breaking open and Darla falling to her death (?) into the Thames! Reggie who managed to call Nigel before the battery on his cell phone died, Nigel rallying the other Black Cabbies, who linked arms at the base of the Bridge and saved Laura when her grip gave way!
As I was reading this, I found myself thinking that this read like a novelization of a TV series. You know, some striking images, built in recurrent episodes and characters, enough action to distract you from the fact that the plot doesn't make a whole lot of sense. And then, on the publisher's website I found this information about Michael Robertson.
MICHAEL ROBERTSON works for a large company with branches in the United States and England. His first novel in this series, The Baker Street Letters, has been optioned by Warner Bros. for television. He lives in San Clemente, California.
Oh yeah, give me a pipe and call me "Sherlock Holmes!" I wouldn't be surprised to find that he was a television writer, or something similar.
Again--a fine enough book to read in paperback, to pick up on a second-hand table, to take to the beach. Definitely NOT worth $25 in hardcover. I read the e-book version, which was half the hardcover price, and probably not worth that either. Would I watch a TV series? I'd certainly give it a shot. Would I recommend these books to my friends? Probably not without some serious caveats.
Great premise, intriguing mystery set up, ultimately squandered by the poor execution. Reggie Heath is a London barrister with a fabulous life--wealthy, a partner at Lloyd's of London (which requires some serious liquidity), Queen's Counsel, dating a gorgeous actress. He's just rented the second floor of a large building for his law chambers on Baker Street. And yes, the block the building sits on encompasses what would be 221B, the home of fictional Sherlock Holmes.
One of the conditions of the lease, then, is that Reggie is required to answer the letters that still come in addressed to Sherlock Holmes. Reggie's rather feckless brother Nigel is given that task, and Nigel finds himself intrigued by one of the requests for help. Twenty years ago an 8 year old girl wrote to ask Sherlock Holmes to help find her missing father, and included something she called "Daddy maps" to aid in the search. Now Nigel has received two letters purportedly from the same girl, now an adult, asking for return of the enclosures. Nigel believes the contemporary letters are forgeries, and the girl is in danger.
Reggie isn't interested, being far too concerned with the challenge of the upcoming hearing to reinstate Nigel's solicitor's license. Nigel is visibly more interested in the Sherlock letters, and Reggie nags and needles and nudges his brother to get back to his "real" career. It's pretty well sketched that Nigel is only a lawyer because he's appeasing his older brother, and so the reader is not surprised when Nigel doesn't even turn up at his reinstatement hearing, leaving Reggie to vamp frantically as he tries to cover up for his brother's unexplained absence. It is here we find out what Nigel did to be suspended, and even here it's more about Reggie's desperate need to "protect" his brother than anything else.
There was "that thing in Kent." Apparently Nigel won a case in court, then subsequently found his client had lied. Deeply remorseful, he attempted to return his legal fee to the unsuccessful parties, which apparently required him to break into the women's only dorm where he ran into the under-aged (and under dressed) daughter and reached into his pants to offer her a check, only that wasn't what SHE thought he was whipping out. At least, that's the story Reggie tells the committee. He also lies and says that Nigel had a sudden, horrible flu, and was unable to contain his bodily fluids long enough to attend the hearing. . . .no, it wasn't any funnier in the book.
Reggie, being a douche, can't believe Nigel would blow off the hearing, and he is especially peeved because he (Reggie) had planned to go to the airport immediately thereafter, to intercept his girlfriend Laura and say something that was (he thought) going to convince her not to fly to New York to do Shakespeare on Broadway, followed by time in LA making a movie of the play. Because he doesn't realize she's an actress maybe? Because while he can't treat her well or ask her to marry him or even act like he loves her, he also can't stand to let her do anything other than hang around London waiting for him to call? Oh, and there's some nonsense about how Nigel was interested in Laura first. This does not constitute self-awareness on Reggie's part.
Fortunately for the reader, when Reggie does go back to the office, there's a dead body in Nigel's office. It's the obnoxious chambers clerk, his head bashed in by a large reproduction Remington bronze. The office has been ransacked, locked file cabinets broken open, and the interesting letters about the 20 year old case are missing. The cops arrive already convinced of Nigel's guilt, and so Reggie concludes that he has to follow his brother to LA to protect him from being found guilty of this murder.
The LA Reggie ends up in is not Beverly Hills. It would be a series of noir cliches, except almost everything happens in the harsh daylight. Reggie spends some time tracking his brother's footsteps, but can't figure out what Nigel has been doing until he finally meets Mara Ramirez, the girl who wrote the letter 20 years ago. He follows her to her apartment, knocks on the door, and doesn't have any insight into what a creepy thing that is to do, not even when she threatens to set her dog on him. So she does set her dog on him, and the dog knocks him down the stairs.
Now most people would take this as a sign that maybe they aren't equipped to do this kind of stalking/detective work, and might even go see a doctor about the possible concussion. Not Reggie--he keeps trying to get Mara to talk to him. There is a fax he gets from Nigel, calling a meeting at 2 AM at a deserted culvert, and Reggie goes because he is stupid. And so of course he goes there only to find a corpse in a shopping cart and of course that is the exact moment the cops show up and of course that doesn't convince him that he doesn't know what the hell he is doing. And he goes back and talks to Mara again.
For some (not at all convincing) reason, Mara talks to him, lets him in, and shows him the little tin box where she keeps her treasures, including copies of the "Daddy maps" she had sent to Sherlock Holmes twenty years ago. Because of course she made photo copies when she was eight. And not just photo copies, but two complete sets--one set she sent to Sherlock, one set she kept in her tin box, and then the originals she hid "someplace safe." Sounds like all the eight year olds you know, right?
But the documents have been stolen--they aren't in the box. Who could have taken them? Maybe the creepy neighbor who got himself killed and dumped into a grocery cart in the abandoned culvert? Must have been. But look! Mara didn't see this, but there is a corner of one of the documents that tore off and is wedged in the box. So of course Reggie palms it without telling her, because. . .because. . .okay, there is no reason he behaves this way, except that he is a douche.
And it's not just a corner, like the kind of corner that you might actually expect would get caught in the seams of a tin box and would be left behind if the original pages were taken in a hurry. No, this is a "corner" that is large enough that it contains two (illegible--of course) signatures, some identifying location data, and enough content that Reggie is able to recognize it as a geological survey (which--how does he recognize this? Why does he recognize this? Put it down to Plot Requirement Syndrome, where a character knows whatever is necessary to get the plot to the next scene, but no more than that). So he goes to the geology department at Unnamed University, where the suspiciously busy head of the department can't help now, but leave the documents and he'll look at them later.
Instead, Reggie runs into a lovely graduate student who goes out of her way to look at his document, access the data base of all geological surveys ever done anywhere on the planet, where this doesn't match! And this database search takes seconds! And this lovely grad student serves three plot functions, being herself a victim of Plot Requirement Syndrome:
- She tells him that the data on his "corner" is evidence that somebody faked the survey results so that anybody using the database information to build. . .for example, a subway under LA. . .would think it was safe when it actually would blow up and kill everybody in the tunnel as soon as they hit the gas pockets.
- She flirts mildly with Reggie, supposedly making us think that he really is attractive and charismatic, but actually confirming that he is an ass for entertaining thoughts about this girl while he's also busy being a controlling douche to Laura.
- She gets to turn up dead at a time when the plot requires that Reggie get some information but also be prevented from using it in a timely fashion, so he can be discovered with yet another dead body and thus be arrested and have pointlessly hostile interactions with the local police.
So now it's important to find the full documents--the originals that the 8 year old Mara hid in a safe place. Where could that safe place be? Let's ask Mara--but she's gone, her apartment showing signs of her rapid departure and subsequent violent search. But there's her art (she's an artist of course), and she paints the same thing over and over--a small yellow house with a prominent pepper tree. Her childhood home! And she probably hid the originals under the tree! Reggie and Laura pretend (badly) to be a couple looking for a home, sucking in a real estate agent and wasting her time, but Laura finds the documents! Which they take to Anne, the graduate student with PRS who says "We have to tell the Suspiciously Busy Head of the Department!"
Soon, Reggie receives a phone call from Suspiciously Busy (and Also Nervous) Head, asking to meet at the reservoir so they can discuss the documents. Why the reservoir? Oh, well, Suspiciously Busy doesn't have en?ough time to come all the way to where Reggie is, and also doesn't have enough time to wait for Reggie to meet him, so they'll meet halfway. Where Suspiciously will be running anyway, because he has enough time for that but not for an important meeting. And Reggie will be bringing the original surveys too, right? The ones he hasn't made any additional copies of, correct? And where he won't tell anyone he is going? Good!
There is a tedious description of the ominous reservoir jogging path, and a too detailed description of how Reggie gets the documents stolen by a pair of roller bladers, runs a six minute mile in his business suit and shoes, ends up pushed into the water without spoiling the original documents, and gets caught with the body of the Lovely Graduate Student, who was herself obviously murdered because she told Suspiciously Busy about the forged survey documents.
The climax comes as Reggie discovers that Mara's father is one of the suspicious characters who has been lurking around the periphery of the story, and he's the one who killed the creepy neighbor and dumped the body into the shopping cart to be found by Reggie. And Mr. Mara was the original geologist who surveyed the area twenty years ago, but agreed to fudge the numbers in order to get some pressing gambling debts taken care of. He then ran off to Alaska for two decades, but came back just in time to find the subway approaching the area where his bad data will start killing workers. I don't know how he found that out all the way up in Alaska, since nobody on the ground seemed to be able to figure it out. Despite the fact that there had already been an explosion and a major underground fire.
There is a face-off in one of the gas-filled tunnels, where Reggie, Laura and Mr. Mara are to exchange the original documents (still no copies? Just checking. Because it would be too hard for a bunch of adults to do what an 8 year old did twenty years ago) for Nigel and Mara. But Mr. Mara knows that the bad guys are going to try to set off an explosion and kill the five good guys, so it's important that everybody be out of the tunnels and onto the platform/elevator, because if the bad guys don't try to kill them with an explosion then Mr. Mara will try to kill the bad guys with an explosion. In fact, the risk of explosion is so great, and it is so important that they be out of the tunnels in the event of any kind of open flame, that when one of the bad guys does light a flare--they all run down the tunnel. And there is an explosion, and Reggie feels the flames as the fireball passes over him. And yet all the good guys survive, and the bad guys all get killed plus burned so badly that their corpses are not identifiable.
There is a coda, where a generic corporate hack ties up all the loose ends. Reggie gets called into an office building that was near this problematic subway site--the corporate offices of a film production company. It turns out that it was the corporation that paid to have the survey data altered 20 years ago, as a means of recouping a bad investment in land. Having the subway go near their real estate holdings would increase the value of all this vacant land they were holding (20 years later!), and so they sent somebody to get the maps out of Nigel's offices, plus they had planted a mole in Reggie's chambers (his secretary) and murdered the poor sap who originally answered the letters to Sherlock (he caught on and wanted a bigger bribe). They forged the letters asking "Sherlock" to return the maps, and then hired an out-of-work actor to hang around Mara's mailbox to intercept the letter when it came. In fact, the real mastermind (if you can use that word for such a clumsy plot) was the head of the film studio, whose giant portrait dominates the offices where Reggie is being debriefed. And Reggie recognizes the face! It's That Guy! Who was inexplicably not too busy actually running a company to get personally involved in this farce of a mystery, who was on the same flight from London to LA that Reggie was on! And was at the reservoir when Reggie was pushed! And was the second man in the subway tunnel when the explosion happened! Because corporate malfeasors who managed to buy land inside LA that didn't appreciate over 20 years (!) always do their own murdering and hostage exchanges. How else will amateur detectives ever find out who was behind it all?
In a rather nice twist, the corporate goon doesn't want the company role to be made public, so he offers Reggie a substantial bribe, followed by the threat that since Reggie is a partner in a Lloyd's of London syndicate that actually insures the film company, he stands to lose his entire personal wealth if this goes public. Carrot AND stick. Reggie confirms that, yes, he has insured this particular company, and yes, he is liable to the full extent of his personal assets. But he turns the documents over anyway and takes the hit. The end.
As I said, the set up was so promising, but the execution is uneven. The writing is drearily pedestrian so much of the time. Action sequences are so specifically laid out as to rob them of all their drama. Cab rides are rendered turn by turn, as if by a GPS.
The plotting is also rather poorly handled. There is some cursory sleuthing--much of which could have been condensed if anybody in the book had ever used Google searches. Instead, Reggie calls his secretary back in London to look things up for him, which mostly serves to pad the plot. In the "climactic" explosion in the unfinished subway tunnels, the only people who end up dead are the Bad Guys, and the beautiful women who are the love interests don't even get scratched. Yup, that's a Hollywood explosion, all right. Believable it is not.
Robertson has also grossly miscalculated on his main characters, the Heath brothers. Nigel is clearly the more interesting brother--he's the one who is emotionally engaged by the plight of the girl/woman, the one who tries to learn the art of Holmesian deduction, the one who actually abandons a stultifying legal practice to fly to Los Angeles to solve the case. There is a potentially charming scene where Nigel assembles scraps of data to conclude that Reggie had given his secretary a raise--she is now wearing some designer clothes, there is a form for a car loan. This would have been a better scene if we had seen it dramatized, rather than have Reggie tell Laura about it.
Since Nigel is the more interesting charcter, then he ISN'T the one we read about. In fact, Nigel disappears for more than 80% of the book, and we are stuck following Reggie around as he tries to figure out how to make Nigel stop being so inconvenient. This is an ongoing problem, because after bashing around LA for a hundred pages or so, Reggie finally finds Nigel, who is then immediately arrested, sent to jail, mysteriously sprung on bail, kidnapped, blown up and left in a coma for several days. Basically, it's as though the author has no idea of what to do with with this character so does whatever he can think of to keep Nigel out of the narrative.
Instead, Robertson has made Reggie the protagonist of this book, and Reggie is an ass. He's judgmental about his brother, he's alternately insanely and inappropriately possessive of his girlfriend, while simultaneously unwilling to make any emotional connection with her. He's not a very convincing detective, especially when things get rough--there is no way I believe that he would shake off all the physical abuse he receives at the hands of the various villains. He's a London barrister, not a guy who spends his time getting knocked around physically, yet he gets up after being knocked unconscious at least three times over the course of the book and goes back for more.
Robertson tries to give Reggie some kind of complex emotional life, revolving mostly around his failure to hold onto Laura and his (passing) guilt about having "stolen" Laura from Nigel. That gets rather tidily resolved without any effort on his part when Nigel conveniently falls in love with Mara anyway. Also, it's not clear why Reggie has any trouble keeping Laura as his girlfriend, since she actually joins him in LA to help him rescue his brother. Sadly, she isn't able to save him from being a douche, and in the end their relationship is where it was at the beginning--he thinks she should be in love with him, despite the fact of his being a jerk to her at every opportunity, and he can't figure out why she might not want to spend all her time with him on his terms.
To give the book its due, though, some of it is truly charming. Robertson has some deftness in sketching characters--the tragic Lovely Grad Student, for example, comes to life with only a few details and some good dialogue. The premise is clever, and sets the stage for as many sequels as one can imagine, since there is no reason to run out of letters to Sherlock asking for help. The specific details that lure Nigel into investigating--the touching letters from the marvelous eight year old Mara, the enclosed maps, then the subsequent forged letters asking for their return. . .those are beautifully done. These are the nuggets in the trash, that make me wish Michael Robertson had given the entire book the care and attention it needed to bring the whole thing up to the level of the best bits.
I enjoyed it enough to get the second book in the series, which I'll review next.