DEVILS AND DETAILS
Kathy Beltner starts out alone to do a multi-mile snowshoe hike on a park trail only hours before dark, with snow falling and her cell phone left behind in her car. When she lets her mind wander to personal problems and gets off the main trail, she decides to play Daniel Boone through the woods instead of backtracking her steps to the known trail. And then the consequences of all these poor choices rain down on her head. She comes upon a well-lit, homey cabin occupied by a grisly bearded squatter and takes a .357 gunshot to her face.
When Chief of Police Lew Ferris wakes up that same day, all she has on her plate is an international ice fishing competition that is bringing in a spate of spectators and multiple television crews. By the time she goes to bed that night, she still has the ice fishing competition but she also has a murder, a stalker, and multiple cases of identity theft associated with someone hacking into the local tech college’s network.
Victoria Houston writes marvelous murder mysteries in the cozy genre. She has created realistic protagonists in Doc Osborne, Lew Ferris and Ray Pradt. They are characters who are qualified to investigate crimes, not the cupcake bakers or the quilting mavens or the bridge club members that many authors try to foist off on the reader. These are decent people, with integrity and intelligence. And they are believable in both their actions and their emotions.
So, if her mysteries are so well constructed with protagonists who are not only believable but feel like friends, why would I rate this work with only 2 stars? Because Houston chooses to insult her readers by being free and loose with the laws of physics and by being even freer and looser with the details of her main character’s backstories.
And the discrepancies in both categories are blatantly noticeable. First, in this 11th book of the series, Houston tells the reader, in one of the recaps near the beginning of the story, that Doc met Lew and took his first fly-fishing lesson from her while she was still a patrol officer. Now, go back to the very first book, Dead Angler, where we meet Doc and Lew for the first time, in present tense and in real time. You will find that when they meet, Lew is not a patrol officer but Chief of Police and has been for some time.
Second, in this 11th book of the series, Houston tells us, again in recap, that Doc’s wife has been dead for only two years. Now go back to the first book in the series again and Mary Lee has already been dead more than two years when we read the very first page. And this current book cannot be considered a prequel under any condition as Houston clearly references other events that have occurred in the intervening books, events that transpired at least four to five years after Mary Lee’s death.
But the third discrepancy topped it all. Houston tries to convince the reader that a highly trained scene investigator will accept an explanation that a power surge can physically turn on devices that have been cut off before the surge occurred. Now, it is true that a device that is in standby mode before a power failure will turn on when power is restored, but that is because the device has not actually been turned off to start with. However, that is not what Houston describes in her storyline. What she seems to want the reader to believe is that the cabin with all the lights on, lights that shouldn’t be on since the owner is gone for the winter, is that well-lit cabin where Kathy Beltner was murdered. Great red herring, but really bad execution of the idea.
Houston has included these discrepancies in backstory and mechanics so many times, that, at this point, I will no longer pay good money, beyond that of the tax dollars that support my local library, to read one of her books. I simply will not pay to have my intelligence as a mystery reader insulted by an author who apparently doesn’t believe that a reader can catch the fact that the detailed recaps of backstory don’t match from novel to novel.
While Houston may only put out a new book once a year, readers have good memories for the series that they like and they know when characterizations get skewed and timelines get re-invented. And a reader who has just discovered a series, a reader who is devouring several books of that series a month in order to catch up, will definitely notice the absence of timeline correlation from book to book and within each book.
Yet Houston does so many things well in her books, like systematic and realistic plots as well as realistic protagonists. And that makes it an absolute shame when she scuttles the effort with such obvious inconsistencies in backstories and downright inaccuracies concerning mechanics and electricity.
Because of the multiple points of view presented through various characters, Houston lets the reader know far more about the villain and the crimes than she allows any of the protagonists to know individually. So having identified the “who,” we get to sit back, question the “why,” and experience our protagonists putting it all together. The story may not be a heart-pounding, lose sleep type of thriller but it is an intriguing puzzle, nevertheless. Thus, it serves a purpose for the dedicated mystery reader – it helps to cleanse the palate, so to speak, after a particularly intense mainstream thriller from the likes of Baldacci, Child and Deaver.
So, even if Houston builds each book on the shifting sands of faulty historical memory and bad physics, I will continue to read abut Doc, Lew and Ray – albeit from a library book from now on. These characters are a breath of fresh air after a chilling serial killer mystery. But I will continue to call out the author every time she turns a potential 5-star read into a brain-jarring experience simply because she has apparently not yet accepted that the devil of success is truly in the details.
Cover Art From Goodreads