Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Wizards and Nipples and Ghosts, Oh My!

Delilah Devlin, Shattered Souls

Caitlyn O’Connell hears ghosts. She drank away her marriage and police career trying to silence the voices, and now she goes through the motions of a PI, alternating between binge and hangover. But her cop ex-husband drags her to a murder scene. Seems her training officer has been murdered, his body is missing, and supernatural elements implicate Cait in the death.

The story starts well, with a bloody handprint inside a mirror. Yes, inside, meaning inside the reflection. The juxtaposition of a common CSI clue with an uncommon location distinguishes the story from the crowd of urban fantasies mass-produced by large publishing conglomerates. Despite the drunken PI cliché, Devlin manages to start the story with remarkable momentum.

But then she devolves into Caribbean mysticoidal stereotypes, a dispirited investigation cribbed from Dashiell Hammett, and a complete lack of narrative tension. You could make a drinking game spotting what other urban fantasists Devlin ransacked for story elements she could assemble like Legos. Jim Butcher! Kat Richardson! Ilona Andrews! Another one down the hatch.

The investigation includes little actual procedural work. Only twice do the characters go anywhere crime related, preferring to visit wizards and mediums, letting spirits and undead informants drop knowledge in their laps. They don’t uncover clues so much as receive them; they don’t make discoveries so much as let someone, mainly Cait’s mentor, tell them the story from memory.

Caitlyn’s ex, Sam, pulls her into the investigation because the victim’s messages reveal she spoke to him mere hours before his death. I feel safe revealing this, because it happens in chapter one, and is never mentioned again. Something that major deserves further comment. But Devlin quickly abandons her premise, and its clue, in favor of common shopworn formulae.

This tedious inevitability gives Devlin’s story the texture of a funeral march. Everything feels planned, stopping at necessary locations, expressing the necessary sentiments, so we can arrive together at the end prescribed by the circumstances. Because we never get the sense that something unexpected could happen, the progress becomes entirely joyless in a hurry.

If the story feels utterly familiar and predictable, it is not salvaged by the erotic content. Devlin, a romance novelist, inserts sex scenes with mechanical regularity, every sixty to seventy pages. The rest of the story becomes beholden to these scenes. They do not advance the plot, but overwhelm it, particularly because they are so completely devoid of romance.

Devlin barrages readers with details about body parts, fluids, and genitals. I’ve read online porn with more nuanced dialog and deeper characterization. Devlin’s cutesy-poo euphemisms for genitalia, painfully lurid descriptions of sex acts, and total separation of the heart from the groin, make me wonder how grown-up these characters, and her intended audience, actually are.

This becomes most (ahem) pointed with Devlin’s obsessive interest in Cait’s nipples. Her long, detailed, frequent discursions on nipple behavior resemble middle-school locker room bull sessions. Surely a character specified as already past thirty has a more mature awareness of her own body than to gauge her romantic inclinations by how often her nipples stand up.

Before long we realize that Devlin’s story exists only to bind the sex scenes together. Perhaps that’s why, throughout, it felt like the story was building to an inevitable end. Devlin recycles stereotypes from a million hard-boiled cop movies and urban fantasy novels, because what happens doesn’t matter as long as the characters get to rub genitals again.

Characters have sex in novels. Fantasists I’ve reviewed, like Vicki Pettersson and Melissa Olson, use sex to propel the story or reveal something about their characters. The conflict between Cait’s procedural efforts and her romantic entanglements bears great initial promise. I wanted to like how Cait’s relationships helped unpack her story’s premise.

But Devlin’s characters discuss sex like teenagers just discovering their libidos. The coarse language and long, lurid descriptions made me feel like I’d walked in on my parents in flagrante delicto. Scenes that should have fired my loins quickly became a joyless slog. I started skipping the sex scenes, hoping the story would resume momentum afterward. By and large, it doesn’t.

Because these unromantic scenes reveal nothing about the characters, or their story, or even imply a relationship beyond the rubbing of parts, they do not invite us to participate in their journey. The story and the sex form a weird symbiosis of chilling dispassion. I wanted to escape the scenes as fast as I could. Which is what I wound up doing with the book, too.


  1. Spam is nutritious and a good source of protein.

  2. So is lumber. That doesn't mean I want any.