GOOD CHARACTERS, BAD PLOT LINE EXECUTION
Doc Osborne does not, in the first chapter, find a body while fishing, as he usually does. What he finds in that first chapter is his daughter, Erin, on his doorstep, distraught over the fact that her husband, Mark, has left her and their three children. What he also finds is that Mark’s actions have triggered a recurrence of an old nightmare that took years of therapy for Erin to subdue.
This nightmare – bloody arms covered in decaying flesh reaching upward in a grasping pose – has a very real source. Those bloody arms were attached to the body of one of Erin’s schoolmates, a body Erin found stuffed in a burlap sack in the woods across the street from their house. The suspected murderer, Jack Schultz, committed suicide before being charged and the police summarily closed the case without further investigation. Doc has always thought that Schultz was railroaded and that the real murderer is still out there.
Doc finds two other items in short order. First is a warm, fresh-baked peach pie left on his deck with no indication of its provenance. Second is the body, albeit alive, of Catherine Plyer Steadman. Catherine is a former receptionist Doc employed years ago when he was first starting his dental practice.
Doc had fired the young woman when he and a telephone company investigator caught her in the act of making obscene phone calls from his office phone. Only seventeen years old at the time, she avoided prosecution, only to get pregnant by and marry one of the richer lads in town. Long since divorced from Parker Steadman, Doc feels that Catherine’s re-appearance in Loon Lake after several decades cannot bode well. Particularly since her ex-husband is sponsoring the million-dollar purse bass fishing tournament to be held in town during the coming weekend.
Other circumstances don’t bode well for Doc or for Chief of Police Lew Ferris either. Parker Steadman’s long-time girl friend has been receiving threatening phone calls and has requested additional security during the tournament (enter Ray Pradt). And Parker’s administrative assistant is none other than Edith Schultz, the oldest daughter of Jack Schultz. It seems Erin’s nightmare is about to become a daymare. Add to all this a motorcycle rally being staged simultaneously with the fishing tournament and a planned DEA sting operation on an Ecstasy mill right up the street. As it has often been said, the plot thickens.
So early into the book, we have a cold case, a high-purse fishing tournament drawing large crowds into a small town, a bike rally drawing even more visitors into that same small town, a drug ring in their back yard, a telephone stalker and a pie-baking, roll-baking, chicken pot pie-making stalker. We have a domestic crisis and a known sociopath returning to the scene of her earlier deviousness. And we have three well fleshed-out main characters, two of which are blessedly middle-aged.
What we don’t have is an author with a good memory or a good beta reading team. And we don’t have an author who does consistent research. And for the first time in four books, we don’t have a quality plot execution.
BE AWARE – SPOILERS FOLLOW!
First are a couple of examples of Houston’s poor memory. For four novels now, the author has stated that Doc is 63 years old. The first novel began the previous summer and it is now July again. In this novel, she states that Doc’s birthday is in June, so that means he just had a birthday, making him 64, not 63. Also, at one point Houston talks about a three-day motorcycle class for Doc, then, several pages later, it is a two-day class.
While these glitches are noticeable, they are relatively small in the grand scheme of things and should have been caught by a good beta reader. However, several of the research errors are glaring. The first occurs when Doc is recounting the story of Erin finding the body in the burlap sack. Erin is 30 years old in this book and the incident occurred 17 years ago, per Houston’s writing. Simple arithmetic, then, makes Erin 13 years old when she finds the body. According to the anecdote, and mentioned several times, Erin is wearing a Brownie Scout uniform. Not at 13 years old she’s not! Brownies graduate to the next level of scouting before they reach 9 years old, always have. I haven’t been in scouting for 50 years and I knew that immediately. Apparently, Google is not on the author’s go-to list for fact checking.
Now, to be fair, Houston did a fine job on her research about Harleys and the riders’ organizations, bike accessories and clothing. And it is clear that she has stepped foot on an RV sales lot or in someone’s coach at least once in her life. But, apparently, she has not seen a 40-foot coach in actual operation or she would not have tried to place the one in her novel on a narrow back road in a wooded clearing near a creek. Turn radius, swing room, coach height and boon-docking appear to be subjects Houston knows little about and did not research. Since I have lived in, full-time, and have been driving a 40-foot bus-style coach for the last eleven years, I have an in-your-face familiarity with the situation. All I could do when Houston started describing the coach and its environs was to put my head in my hands and groan.
But the poor plot execution was the biggest disappointment for me. Unlike the way she crafted the first three books in the series, this novel feels unfocused and out of sync. She seems to have boxed her convoluted plotline and sub-plots into a corner and then didn’t have either the time prior to deadline, or the incentive, to re-write the resolution. So, it appears that she wrote the last chapter as a type of epilogue to tie together the rough edges. Nevertheless, I have read the last scene of the book at least three times and the last two lines of the book still don’t make any sense. It makes me wonder what was cut out to deal with word count.
To be specific on the issue, as the main conflict rages, the main protagonists find themselves caged in a cold storage shed, locked from the outside – again, twice in two consecutive books. Secondly, as the final crisis plays out, Lew’s gun action from the dock is accurate but the physics involved with the boats is not.
And the part about Erin’s husband, Mark, withdrawing $20K from savings to buy a motorcycle is, on the surface, realistic to the going price of a Harley at the time, a price that was clearly stated in the novel. However, he didn’t withdraw the money until after he had made a deal to purchase the bike from another source for only $5K, so there would be no need to withdraw the extra. Not only that, Mark’s character is that of a former DA; he is not a stupid man. And even if he is going through a mid-life crisis, he would know, from his previous occupation, that such a deal springs from an illegal source. Also, he would never have withdrawn savings; he would have taken a personal loan with the savings account as collateral. It appears this hodgepodge was written to be part of the dramatic family crisis Doc was caught up in, but it rings false.
The coup de grace in poor plot execution, however, was the intimate scene that took place between Doc and Lew. Now, Houston has been building up the romantic tension through three previous books. And what we get for all that buildup is – Wait for it! – two paragraphs containing an out-of-the-blue offer from Lew while they are out fishing. I realize that this is a cozy, not a romantic suspense and that a sexual encounter would be more implied than described. But we don’t get any hand-holding; we don’t get any sweet nothings spoken; we don’t get any soft expressions or heated glances. We don’t even get a first kiss! Oh. Come. On!
Cover Art From Goodreads