Monday, July 9, 2012

Finding the Facts in a Very Cluttered Case

DiAnn Mills, The Chase: A Novel

Diann Mills presents a Christian thriller novel, which apparently means no cussing and chaste romance, but remarkably blunt scenes of brutal violence. I like a lot about this book, from its interesting characters and nuanced interactions, to its well-paced, almost cinematic portrayal of a story based on a real-world case. Mills’ adaptation of real characters and situations gives her story verisimilitude. Yet she keeps finding ways to take me out of the story.

Kariss Walker, former Houston media starlet, left journalism to make a living writing chick-lit. But the last case she reported for the evening news, about a young girl found starved to death outside an apartment complex on the bad side of town, won’t let her go. So she decides to restart her career as a suspense novelist, and in pursuit of the best possible story, she teams with the local field office of the FBI for some field research.

Too bad her weatherbeaten training officer, Agent Tigo Harris, cares more for a gunrunning sting he hopes will stop American rifles funneling to Mexican drug cartels. Pursuing this Holy Grail, Tigo stonewalls Kariss, takes crazy dangerous risks, and skirts the edge of legality. But when people he cares about start dying, Tigo realizes an outside eye, like Kariss offers, might clinch the deal and stop the Arroyos, who are less a gang and more domestic terrorists.

Ignore that Mills pilfers the premise behind the TV series Castle. Even Mills obliquely acknowledges this fact. These are pretty interesting stories. The starved baby comes from the Beloved Doe case that baffled Houston for five years, and the gunrunners touch on the power of the headlines. When the two stories converge, as we know they will, they present a conspiracy so intricate, yet so plausible, they make The X-Files look like a bedtime story.

Yet Mills keeps finding ways to get between me and the narrative, reminding me that I’m reading a book. Start with the fact that our main heroine is a novelist, researching how to write... well, how to write the book in my hands. She keeps talking about the author business, phoning agents and publishers, and inserting thoughts about how, wow, this experience I’m having would be great in my novel! I can only describe that as visible authorial fingerprints.

She also alternates between gritty frankness and nigh-Victorian modesty. In the very first chapter, her FBI agent manages to shoot two gang bangers in the chest from a moving car (don’t overthink it). At various times, Mills describes people getting their heads blown off, bodies showing signs of elaborate torture, and several situations where Kariss lives in fear of getting raped. And she describes these scenes with unflinching detail.

Yet her Feds and gangsters won’t drop an f-bomb to save their lives. Really? I kept waiting for somebody to let fly with a good old-fashioned blue streak. I don’t think Jesus would mind if we depicted people talking how people talk. And sex... well, it just doesn’t happen. Our leads have the romantic tension that is mandatory in genre fiction today, yet neither will speak first, so their courtship consists of playing web app games on their smart phones.

Then Mills feels the need to clutter her good, muscular core narrative with more ornaments than a Christmas tree. Tigo’s dying mother; Kariss’ sister pregnant out of wedlock; her ex-brother-in-law, whose banal uptown greasiness hides darker secrets; the deportee father, who discovers his daughter’s grim fate, and searches for his missing wife. It gets hard to keep all the subplots straight.

All these cow paths impinge upon the attention Mills gives her central narrative. The story she promised us gets compressed, and she wanders away for whole chapters. This book could benefit from some judicious trimming, because if Mills had a more austere storyline to hold our attention, she could spend more time fleshing out the story that we readers have hung our hopes on. In other words, Mills should tell less story, but tell it better. This text says she could.

Don’t get me wrong. I read this entire book in two energetic sittings, and don’t regret the time spent. Yet I feel I could have gotten even more out of the experience if it was more tightly focused, and the author invested her energy into telling only one or two plotlines with all the strength she could muster. The thriller market is crowded, and she should reward readers’ investment with the strongest possible story she could tell.

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