Sunday, January 2, 2011

Deadly Décisions

Deadly Décisions: the third installment in the Temperance Brennan series

I first decided to read a Kathy Reichs book after hearing her in a radio interview. I had never before heard of the field of forensic anthropology, and found Reichs’s description of her profession fascinating; particularly her account of her work Hawaii, identifying the remains of US casualties from the Vietnamese, Korean and Second World Wars. Another factor in choosing to read some Reichs is that my father is a fan, and as such I have ready access to much of Reichs’s back catalogue. Deadly Décisions was the earliest instalment in the series I could find, so Deadly Décisions I duly read.

Deadly Décisions is centred on Reichs’s regular heroine Temperance ‘Tempe’ Brennan. Brennan, like her creator Reichs, is a forensic anthropologist who divides her time between Montreal and North Carolina. She is divorced, owns a cat, has an on again/off again beau named Andrew Ryan, and enjoys cooking and watching sports. This particular instalment of the Temperance Brennan cycle concerns Montreal’s feuding motorcycle gangs.

Reichs is at her best when writing about her profession, and the book does contain some interesting technical detail. Chapter 8, in which Brennan describes the use of Ground Penetrating Radar in the search for bodies, is particularly engaging. Her pedigree as a forensic anthropologist notwithstanding, Kathy Reichs is not a terribly good novelist, and Deadly Décisions remains a very unexceptional novel.

The first indicator of Reichs’s limitations as a writer comes with the death of nine year-old Emily Anne Toussaint. Poor Emily Anne was blown up on the way to her ballet lesson: an innocent bystander killed in a botched assassination attempt - part of the ongoing biker feud. Reichs is about as subtle as a sledgehammer: in case the ballet lesson detail didn’t prove suffice to pull at the readers’ heartstrings, the reader is informed:

“That night Emily Anne was to have received an award in a lower-school writing competition. She’d titled her winning essay: ‘Let the Children Live.’”

One ponders what the competition was for – ‘Most saccharine essay title’, perhaps?

Like many writing in crime/thriller genre, Reichs is a fan of similes. Unfortunately, Reichs isn’t terribly good at similes: they’re kind of contrived and awkward. And not in a Yiddish Policeman’s Union, ‘meta’ kind of way. They’re regular bad. To whit, this example from page 197: “He’d been jumpy as cold water on a hot griddle”. And again on page 332: “… and the tension was making me jumpier than a proton in a particle accelerator.”(!?)

The motif reaches its grating zenith around the same time that the novel comes to its narrative climax: Brennan, along with Montreal’s finest, is staking out a biker’s funeral, during which the police expect an assassination to take place. The thrilling element: Brennan’s nephew Kit, a motorcycle enthusiast, is accompanying the assassins’ intended victim. Sergeant-Detective Luc Claudel, a police colleague with whom Brennan apparently has some history (more on the novel’s tension bypass later), is anxious that the forensic anthropologist does not attempt any heroics:

“Don’t even think about freelancing, Ms Brennan. These bikers look like sharks smelling the water for blood, and it could get rough down here.”
“And Kit could get sucked into the feeding frenzy!”

I genuinely winced at that one.

This exchange is meant to illustrate the friction that is alleged to exist between Brennan and Claudel, due to some disagreement that occurred in the first book. Claudel seems quite reasonable (if a little distant); Tempe Brennan seems to be going out of her way to dislike the man.

It’s a bad sign in a novel when, as a reader, you don’t sympathise with the main protagonist. Aside from the unlikeable Dr Brennan, the dialogue is dreadful (even discounting the similes), and any time a character is in jeopardy it doesn’t seem believable and I probably wouldn’t have cared even if it was. On the plus side, Reichs’s descriptions of Montreal are quite nice.

All in all, a pretty poor book, El T advises that you avoid it.

What a wonderfully opaque blurb: Do they mean "Better than Patricia Cornwell!!"; or "bit 'meh', but at least it's better than Patricia Cornwell"?

1 comment:

  1. Actually, this review kind of makes me want to read this book. Especially this bit - “And Kit could get sucked into the feeding frenzy!”, and especially this bit "On the plus side, Reichs’ descriptions of Montreal are quite nice."

    Also, Yiddish Policeman's Union was great, although I lost my copy just after the bit where the detective fellow gets shot, so I never finished it. Great setting though.

    Also - Hello, el tarrangu!