DON’T EVEN BOTHER WITH THIS ONE
Victoria Houston, since the beginning of her second novel in this series, has been known to play fast and loose with the laws of physics, re-invent the details of her main characters’ backstories and completely warp the time-space continuum. But she has always crafted a fine, realistic, logical, cozy mystery with well-formed main characters in Doc Osborne, Lew Ferris and Ray Pradt.
However, in this 12th entry in the Loon Lake series, she failed miserably in both the construct of the mystery and with her characterizations of Lew and Ray. And Houston dipped even farther into Never-Never-Land in her handling of the backstories.
First, this book came in at 171 pages on the Nook app of my iPad, basically half the size of the author’s previous works. To set up and execute a murder, then to investigate and solve it requires almost double that space – if you want a mystery that doesn’t read like a cross between Cliff Notes and a newspaper article. And the Cliff Notes version is what we get, which is a shame because the first several chapters are so promising. In those chapters, Houston gives us an illicit office romance that abruptly ends with a murder-for-hire execution and that set-up turns out to be the only decent writing in the book.
Secondly, upon the discovery of the body, Houston devolves the character of Chief of Police Lew Ferris. Houston has Lew looking at the people she interviews with sympathy, admiration or confusion rather than with her normal dispassionate objectivity. The author has Lew missing items she did not ever miss in previous works. But, worst of all, Houston has Lew saying repeatedly that she would be greatly surprised if such-and-such a person had anything to do with the murder, which is incredibly uncharacteristic of Lew Ferris.
Now, I believe I know why Houston uses this particular literary device. At the time Lew starts her investigation, we already know who the murderer is and we know who hired that murderer. Therefore, every time Lew says “I’d be greatly surprised if,” we know she’s wrong and that she is definitely going to be “surprised.”
It would be a great use of the device if Lew were just a regular citizen rather than a well-trained investigator. But she’s not a regular citizen, and she is not a character who usually shuts people down when they try to bring her information. Nor is she a character – or a police chief – who has ever gone by a “Do as I say, not as I do” philosophy. Yet, out of the blue, Houston has her doing all of these things, without provocation, without reason and without explanation.
Thirdly, included in Houston’s destruction of a good premise is a more-than usual re-fabrication of her characters’ backstories. For instance, on one page, Houston has Doc reference the death of Lew’s son. Barely two pages later, Doc states that Lew’s son and daughter are grown up and are successful in their lives. Yet, for the last eleven books, it has been drilled into us that Lew’s son died some years ago from a knife wound in a bar fight at the age of 15. So unless Lew has a third child we have never heard about, that son did not grow up at all, let alone become a successful adult.
Next, Houston devolves Ray Pradt in a major area. Throughout the series, he has been shown to be an extremely talented tracker and guide with intimate knowledge of the area. Now, for the apparent sake of drama, Houston has Ray state that he has never been on a particular local river, and that he had no idea there were major rapids for them to capsize in. Yet, two sentences later, he tells Doc and Lew that one of his friends lives just around the next bend in the river. Now how could he know that if he had never been on that stretch of water before? And – the wording of that scene with the unexpected rapids was lifted almost verbatim from a previous novel.
Finally, the time line of the series gets jarringly re-written. First, Doc is said to have met Lew while she was a patrol officer, not chief. However, the details of their first meeting was a major part of the first novel and has been recapped in great detail in each of the following nine books. And since, in that first novel, she deputized him to work with her force only days after meeting him, she couldn’t have been a patrol officer as stated in this book.
Secondly, Houston lists three more conflicting points of chronology: Doc has worked with Lew as a deputy coroner for 3 years; Doc has been retired from his dental practice for 3 years; and Ray is 32 years old. While the first fact seems true based on series progression, the second and third cannot possibly be true unless everything Houston established in the first book of the series is a hallucination.
For instance, as we begin the first book in the series, Doc has already been retired for 3 years, his wife dead for two of those years, before he even meets Lew on that river for his first fly-fishing lesson. So, simple math makes Doc a retiree for 6 years, not 3. And, according to the first book, Ray is 32 years old when Doc meets Lew. Yet Ray is still 32 years old, after Doc has been working with Lew for 3 years. Nope, don’t think so.
These time-space jumps are obvious, incredibly annoying, and disrupt the flow of the story. Quite frankly, Houston needs to develop a consistent narrative for her characters’ backstories and quit changing major points from book to book and within the same book.
Up to this point I have been reading the series for two reasons, despite Houston’s foibles with backstory and time line. First, the series was a gift to me by someone dear and I would never dishonor the gift or the giver by not reading the books. Secondly, the mysteries have always been well-crafted and the characterizations such that Doc, Lew and Ray come across as competent investigators and feel like friends.
However, I have only one book remaining in the gift. And if Houston continues to maul those characterizations and short change the quality of the investigations, then that book will likely be the last Houston novel in my library. Even if that entry does return to Houston’s previous level of mystery writing, based on past experience, I will probably, for any future novels, choose a public library copy over personal funds potentially wasted.
Cover Art From Goodreads