Wednesday, January 2, 2013

JT Ellison's Mystery Romance Stew

J.T. Ellison, Edge of Black

Because law enforcement is heavily systematized, for good reason, and crime is often banal, mystery fiction tends toward repetition. If you’ve ever screamed at a novel, wondering why the hero can’t see the widow’s lies, that’s why. Good authors beat this curb through innovative characterization—like Charles Todd and Stef Penney. JT Ellison handles this by cribbing technique from romance, another repetitive genre, with, let’s say, predictable results.

A biological attack on the DC subway paralyzes America’s government and kills three, including a congressman. ME Samantha Owens accepted a Georgetown teaching gig to escape such drama, but the DCPD and State Department need her experience and insight. When her boyfriend goes vigilante to pursue the attacker, whom he may know from his Army hitch, Sam finds herself caught between the law she’s sworn to uphold, and America’s greater good.

Presumably, Ellison wants to court the same audience that loves authors like Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs. She uses much the same style: an alternation between wonky technical investigation, breakneck police work, and slow character exposition. But instead of creating taut, multifaceted character mysteries like Cornwell and Reichs, Ellison sprawls all over the map—literally, as the investigation caroms from DC to Denver and all points between.

I can’t identify which egregious mistakes bother me most. I began to get a sinking feeling when Sam Owens’ boyfriend, Xander, destroyed evidence and went off in pursuit of Lone Ranger justice. Does Sam, the career civil servant, recognize this vigilantism for the reckless endangerment it is? Nope, she considers it manful, assertive, and “the right thing.” When her DCPD contact is understandably angered, she stops barely short of calling him fascist.

Likewise, supposed professionals make such novice mistakes, I suspect they misunderstood the job questionnaire. Surely an ME with disaster training knows to volunteer her services at the perimeter of a biological attack, not to the men in the Tyvek moon suits. Police tracking a high-stakes witness should ping his cell phone now, not after he calls his girlfriend. Checking a victim’s Facebook page is victimology SOP; getting blindsided a day late is inexcusable.

But perhaps the characters are distracted. They’re busy calibrating attractiveness: in each other, peers, bosses, and peripheral characters. Sam is deeply in love with Xander, but has to fend off romantic advances from her DCPD contact, Fletch. Meanwhile, Fletch seems to have crushes on his assistant, his boss, and a buxom vice cop. Shouldn’t skilled professionals in a national security crisis postpone the sexual byplay until happy hour?

Nor is it just the core ensemble. Ellison introduces new characters, not by name, action, or dialog, but by appearance. No character is permitted to speak, perform in-scene action, or advance the plot until Ellison establishes them as good-looking. No character who says or does anything in this book is less than ravishingly beautiful, man or woman, except one victim’s mousy mother and, in the final reveal, the culprit. Beauty equals virtue, evidently.

Between flashes of incipient sexcapades, Ellison cantilevers so many potential storylines into the book that she can’t resolve them all. Because it happens in an early chapter, it spoils nothing to say the DCPD pull Sam into the investigation because it appears the subway attack was targeted at the congressman alone. Tenuous prodding reveals that Peter Leighton may have sordid hobbies, unseemly connections, and a Moriarty-like double life.

Yet this, and several other byzantine subplots, disappear from the story for dozens of pages at once. Ellison has so many balls that she can’t juggle them together, and I kept forgetting she’d introduced something important. Then the investigation happens off-stage. Ellison introduces a possible serial rapist voyeur druggie congressman, then sends his DNA to a lab, and in the denouement, has her cop character basically shrug and say, “That was a red herring.”

BORRR-ring!

Ellison’s press biography claims she has worked with police, FBI, and other agencies to ensure the realism of her stories. After reading the slipshod techniques and outright illegalities of this story, I suspect she may have law officers asking to have their names redacted from her acknowledgments page. Her theatrics belong in a Vin Diesel movie, not in a police procedural with aspirations of verisimilitude.

This is not a serious novel. This is a mixed-genre slumgullion to fall asleep under on a beach or on a plane. Anybody who reads mysteries seriously will recognize it for a Rube Goldberg narrative, which might have worked as a parody, but is too earnest for its own good.

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