I get called “elitist” whenever I say this, but a large segment of publishing caters to people who don’t read much. Books appear every year meant to let people mark time on airplanes, diddle around before bedtime, or fall asleep at the beach. Please don’t mistake me: I don’t mind these books, or the people who write them. But some such books are better than others.
Take Erica Spindler’s Watch Me Die. Glass artist Mira Gallier hasn’t accepted her husband’s death in Hurricane Katrina. Without her business restoring church windows, she’d collapse. When the priest in the church she just finished dies beneath defaced windows, she feels deeply about the murder. Then the bum who threatened her, the father-in-law who nurses a grudge, and others near Mira die violently, with biblical quotes written over the bodies. Somebody’s tightening the net around Mira, and if she can’t figure out who fast, she’ll get arrested—or worse.
Admittedly, nothing innovative happens in this story. Its egregious red herrings, suspects who burst up like whack-a-mole puppets, and Agatha Christie-like plot will seem entirely familiar to anyone who has read more than three amateur sleuth mysteries. Spindler hammers clues so vigorously that veteran readers know who to dismiss fairly early. It hits so many clichés so fast that parts of it descend into comedy.
Yet Spindler crafts characters of such internal complexity that readers want to finish the story. We know, because we’ve read this plot before, that the characters make bad choices. We know, because we’re not stupid, how the story will ultimately resolve. Yet we persevere because we care about these people, and want to see them come out okay. Spindler knows what audiences crave, and gives it to them.
James Barney could take some lessons in that area. His debut, The Genesis Key, has a more ambitious background story, yet plays everything by the numbers. Like Spindler, Barney does nothing new; unlike Spindler, Barney does nothing to make the story appealing. Long, talky exposition, frenetically short chapters, interchangeable characters, and comically overwritten dialog conspire to steal all energy from this book.
Dr. Kathleen Sainsbury’s research into human aging only aims to eliminate Alzheimer’s and dementia. But her late parents’ archaeological research opens Pandora’s box when ancient DNA offers to give centuries-long lifespans to those who can afford it. Suddenly everyone wants something from Sainsbury: treatment, money, power, or blood. The mild researcher finds herself at the nexus of conspiracies, maneuvers, and multinational black ops.
Combining cutting-edge science with Biblical exegesis and ancient folklore, this book ballyhoos the venerable theme that There Are Certain Things Science Should Not Know. Its amateurish conflation of the Bible, the Epic of Gilgamesh, rudimentary genetics, and political intrigue intend, perhaps, to illuminate deeper human truths. But as one expository monologue mounts on another, while the science gets only sillier, my only reaction is laughter. And I just can’t make myself care about these entirely interchangeable characters.
Kath Russell blends these two approaches in A Pointed Death. When biotech entrepreneur Nola Billingsley said she wanted to see embezzler Roger Chen dead, she never thought she’d live to see it. But as both his victimized employer and the one to discover his body, the cops rush her to the top of the suspect list. Now, as she tries to rebuild her career, she also has to stay one step ahead of the police to prove her innocence.
Russell’s writing has the technical density Barney shares, but she doesn’t resort to creaky techno stereotypes—characters explaining the obvious to each other, long monologues from dark strangers, or ubiquitous nosy journalists—like Barney does. Russell reveals details by having characters interact like human beings. This means readers have to keep up, but Russell makes that easy by avoiding jargon or pointy-headed discursion.
Also, where Erica Spindler is deadly earnest, and James Barney is pathetically earnest, Russell has a sense of humor. Her storytelling resembles TV shows like Monk or The Closer, character-driven series where the often workmanlike mystery matters less than the characters. For Russell, the investigation is essentially the pressure cooker in which she combines the characters, then waits to watch them interact.
Calling thrillers like these “beach reading,” and admitting they challenge readers as little as possible, is not a slight. These authors hope to keep you awake past your bedtime. But there are ways to do that right, and ways that are merely ridiculous. It pays for readers to stay smart in picking out their dumb reading.