Ali Reynolds, a former TV news anchor who returned to her hometown in Arizona after a series of personal crises, is sitting the waiting room of a Phoenix hospital burn ward. She’s an undercover operative for a local sheriff, hunting for the person who stripped a woman bare, doused her with gasoline and set her afire. The woman’s husband walks into the room.
Sula Moreno, despite her phobias and family tragedies, is about to take on the powerful, cold-blooded CEO of a Eugene, Ore., pharmaceutical company. Standing outside a corporate conference room, Sula hears the CEO arguing with a VP about undisclosed dangers of an anti-depressant drug that is about to be launched—with possibly deadly results. She records the conversation, but the CEO spots her.
It’s just another day in the life of Spenser and Hawk. Someone is trying to shake down the operator of a classy, upscale Boston whorehouse run by an old friend of Spenser’s. With expected aplomb, Spenser and Hawk dispatch two batches of thugs but find themselves in something much deeper than a simple protection racket.
Some people are comfortable reading more than one novel at a time. I’m not one of them. Frequently, I read nonfiction while I’m in the middle of a novel, but the thought of trying to keep track of characters and plots from two (or more?) novels at the same time takes the fun out of it. I like to live in novels, identify with characters, appreciate an author’s skill with words and, in the case of mysteries, try to solve the puzzle. Why would I want to do that with three crime books simultaneously?
My wife and I recently returned from vacation. The overseas trip necessitated several long flights. I left prepared with books on my Kindle and one audio book on my iPod. After finishing the book I was reading when we left, I couldn’t decide what to read next. I read a little of J.A. Jance’s Trial by Fire, but put it aside after several chapters. I switched to L.J. Sellers’ The Suicide Effect. Then both books sat unread for several days as we toured. Later I got back to Jance and was intrigued again. But I wondered if Sellers’ seriously flawed protagonist would be able to persevere against her increasingly maniacal, paranoid nemesis. Then we had another flight and I thought it would be easier to lean back and listen to a book, rather than fire up my Kindle.
Robert B. Parker’s Hundred Dollar Baby was a good choice. The version I have is narrated by Joe Montagne, veteran movie actor and current star of the TV series, Criminal Minds. He gives Spenser’s voice just the right casual insolence and understated wit. In fact, Montagne portrayed Spenser in a series of TV movies from 1999 to 2001. His cadence in reading the book, especially when Spenser answers a question laconically, “‘Yes,’….. I said” is perfect. Parker probably loved it.
So I listened to Montagne/Parker for two or three hours. The story started to get a bit complicated. Then we landed and the iPod when back in my carry-on.
Now I was effectively hooked on three crime stories and didn’t want to abandon any of them. When I was reading, I alternated between Sellers and Jance every few chapters. And it worked, relatively. Once when authorities were trying to find relatives for Jance’s burn victim, I assumed they would be out of luck because her son was in a remote part of Africa. Oops. That was in Sellers’ book.
While the plot and characters of each book are dissimilar, I had better luck keeping things straight with Spenser. Thugs and high-priced prostitutes make up the majority of characters, excluding a few cynical cops. I didn’t confuse any of them with characters in the other two books. Some Sellers and Jance characters, however, were more difficult to keep separated.
I always pay attention to point of view and these books demonstrate three different ways of story telling. Sellers chooses a third-person limited POV. In each chapter or subchapter, the story is told from one person’s point of view, as a third-person narrator. For example, in one section protagonist Moreno is fleeing from her boss and we know her feelings and thoughts. Then POV switches to CEO Karl Rudker and we see him chasing Moreno and learn his thoughts. The book switches POV among a variety of characters throughout the book, but each is limited to a particular chapter or section. We don’t hear thoughts of two people at once.
Jance also uses a third-person POV, but the story is told through her gutsy amateur PI, Reynolds, and we always know only her thoughts. The exception is that the burn victim also has her own chapters giving us her thoughts as she struggles through the effects of pain and morphine.
Parker uses Spenser as his first-person narrator.
Each POV reflects the character of each novel. Jance’s story proceeds at a measured pace and we learn clues as Reynolds learns them and we share her thoughts about, and conversations with, her family members.
Spenser narrates his tale in the time-honored PI first-person format. It allows him to share off beat observations, make wise-cracks and tell us only what he wants to share.
Sellers’ POV jumps back and forth often, as a suspense-building device popular with many thriller writers today. Moreno has stolen important evidence on a DVD, but is waylaid by police. Then we’re in Rudker’s head as he breaks into Moreno’s home while she’s away, to steal the disk.
If all of this is explanation is confusing, imagine my trying to keep track of three stories in the same genre. Had I been reading, The Goldfinch, Life on the Mississippi, and Jurassic Park, I probably wouldn’t have had trouble keeping everything separate.
Try these books. Each is rewarding for different reasons. But read them separately.
The Suicide Effect (now titled, The Lethal Effect)
Thomas & Mercer 2013
Trial by Fire
Hundred Dollar Baby
Robert B. Parker read by Joe Montagne
Random House Audio 2006
5 hours, 20 minutes