Simon's Bookcase

Reviews from Lord Taylor of Glencoe

Dead Simple

Dead Simple: Peter James, 29 August—10 September, 2011.

My rating: ♦♦◊◊◊

The first case for Detective Superintendent Roy Grace was a relatively unique thriller in the way it was presented. The basic storyline is thus: groom goes on stag night, groom buried in coffin as stag night joke, stags killed in car accident, hunt for missing groom.

From the outset, we are told that his best man knows where he is but is keeping silent, effectively allowing him to die. The book follows the story through the victim, the would-be murderer and the detective. It’s not a whodunnit, or even a howdunnit, more of a what-are-they-going-to-do-now-since-they’ve-dunnit.

Let’s start with the victim. Michael Harrison may or may not survive his coffin ordeal, and unlike many whodunnits that start with a body, we suffer with the victim through what could be his final days. The scenes are well written and very claustrophobic, and the reader feels Michael’s panic, hope and disappointments.

The villains of the piece are a little underdeveloped. Although some thought has gone into each character, they’re quite one-dimensional and could have been more rounded.

And Detective Superintendent Grace, the star of the show and of this new series? A down-to-earth and likeable character who has a dry sense of humour and strong sense of conviction. He’s achieved moderate success but has his frustrations. The disappearance of his wife ten years ago looks set to be a theme which will continue through the series, and one particularly pertinent to this case, even if dealt with a little inconsistently. He keeps her toothbrush and dressing gown in situ in case she returns, but also goes on two dates in the course of the book. Is this the realisation of his own inner conflict, or just poor writing?

As a standalone book, Grace would have been forgettable. But for a long-running series, his character could be slow-burner we’re going to keep learning more about, and it’s a journey I’m happy to take with him.

Set in Brighton, there are a number of welcome reminders that it’s a UK series with lots of cultural references. As police procedurals go, James has done his homework and provides detailed, interesting background to the inner workings of Brighton’s police force. Having said that, it seems American in tone and I wasn’t surprised to learn subsequently that James has written screenplays in the US.

I was also slightly annoyed by silly mistakes – quotation marks opening again in the middle of speech, at one point not closing, elsewhere missing out an apostrophe. Basic errors and editor should have spotted. Elsewhere, swearing was used too gratuitously and the sex scenes were perhaps more graphic than necessary.

The plot moves quickly and the chapters are short, giving great readability. Some of the twists are far fetched, and Grace appears thick as a brick. Although the reader has the benefit of knowing what’s going on, Grace bumbles along wondering, “I have 1 and 1, I wonder what they equal?”

Very obvious conclusions are not made where they should have been. Easy leads aren’t picked up on. And instead of proper police work or following up on these leads, the man seems lead by hunches. And then…

Spoiler warning

Normally, I keep my review strictly spoiler free, but on this occasion I feel compelled to make an exception. Forgetting all else, the case starts and ends as a missing person investigation. The thrust, the purpose, is to find the missing person.

A reasonably written book with a great ending would have been a respectable 4 out of 5. An ending in keeping with the writing, a healthy 3. But I can’t go any higher than 2 on the basis of what unfolded.

Harrison is found (though I’m not saying whether alive or dead) in the final couple of pages. How? Grace chucks a psychic in the car, the psychic says “He’s here” and hey presto!

I accept police forces may use mediums at times, and it was reportedly used in the search for Madeline McCann. But readers of detective books want to see their stars solve mysteries by detection, not  by some bloke humming over cufflinks. It robs us of an ending, it’s a complete cop out and breaks the unwritten rules of the genre. Any detective story could end that way. (“Ooo, aaaahhh, uuummmm. The spirits tell me the butler did it, Poirot.”) It’s lazy, so lazy, and cheapens the whole affair.

For that reason, I cannot recommend Dead Simple, because if the author didn’t care enough about the book to even devise and ending – why should we care either?

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One comment on “Dead Simple

  1. Pingback: Looking Good Dead | Simon's Bookcase

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This entry was posted on September 10, 2011 by in 2 star and tagged .

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