Monday, August 5, 2013

D.P. Lyle's Frenetic Forensic Roulette

D.P. Lyle, Run To Ground: a Dub Walker Thriller

Everyone knows Walter Whitiker killed young Steven Foster. But when an Alabama judge excludes damning evidence on a technicality, Whitiker gets three years on an ancillary charge, and gets out after nineteen months. When an assassin’s bullet fells Whitiker as he exits prison, forensic consultant Dub Walker knows he has a real whodunit. But he regrets taking the case when Steven’s grieving parents become prime suspects.

Doug Lyle’s third Dub Walker novel begins with an engaging reversal: an execrable victim and touchingly sympathetic suspects. Lyle quickly establishes Whitiker as a man of low character, bad associations, and revolting habits. Tim and Martha Foster, however, prove willing to bend conventions and break laws to see justice for their son. Frustratingly, that premise doesn’t translate into a plausible story.

Lyle creates interesting characters with sympathetic motivations. Dub Lyle has multiple specialties and boatloads of guilt. His closest allies are his best friend, homicide detective Thomas “T-Tommy” Tortelli, and his ex-wife, ace TV journalist Claire McBride. This trio brings their diverse skills and connections to bear on a case so emotionally loaded that nobody could possibly emerge unscathed.

But having created such worthwhile characters, Lyle forces them into a story of such surpassing silliness that I wonder if the author was perhaps sleepy. Lyle, a cardiologist and forensic consultant, has worked with police and Hollywood. Surely an author so skilled and experienced realizes his audience reads crime thrillers every day, and knows enough to call bullhockey when the story parts company with reality.

From page one, this book relies on readers’ willingness to believe that two suburban civilians with no criminal history could not only organize an assassination, but their own subsequent disappearance, without anyone noticing. They could somehow teach themselves sniper shooting from the Internet. They could launder $500,000 into cash without ringing bells at the FDIC, DEA, or the Fed. And they could do it in absolute secret.

Not only must readers believe this, so must the cops. Because they believe such unbelievable precepts, they permit their prime suspects one full day’s head start. When Dub and T-Tommy finally decide to pursue their real quarry, they grasp at straws so desperately that they lay themselves open to barefaced manipulation. Their investigation quickly devolves into a comedy of errors.

For instance, early in the investigation, Dub squanders valuable time interviewing Whitiker’s potential prison enemies while the real trail goes cold. Wait, they let an accused pedophile walk the yard openly? Maybe it’s different in Alabama, but in most states, “short eyes” go straight to Keepaway for their own protection. In GenPop, they’d have very short life expectancy.

Then, what PD would allow a consultant they haven’t formally hired yet to take point on a high-profile investigation, essentially using his cop buddy as armed muscle? Dub shows remarkable autonomy in opening doors, conducting semi-legal searches, directing interviews, and handling evidence. It almost looks like T-Tommy wants his case ejected on some technicality. Considering his open sympathy for his suspects, maybe he does.

I repeatedly wanted to grab Dub’s lapels and shout “Pull your head out!” He transcribes multiple circumstantial interviews in which people who knew the suspects say exactly the same things—exactly, sometimes verbatim. He could afford to paraphrase for us. Meanwhile, Dub and T-Tommy ignore a red herring campaign so blatant that I remember it from an episode of Law & Order: SVU. What academy did these guys graduate from?

If this weren’t bad enough, Lyle’s prejudices dribble through his prose. Police may follow false paths occasionally, he says, but they never arrest the innocent. Cops are justified in pushing, or covertly ignoring, the bounds of legality, because criminals have no rights. Defense attorneys deserve to be shot. Any judge who doesn’t carry water for the prosecution is “corrupt.”

This might have made me less squeamish before Edward Snowden pantsed the NSA.

Dub’s confluence of weird actions, amateurish oversights, and excessive narration make this book feel really, really long. Seasoned mystery readers will recognize what Dub misses and wonder why he appears so lackadaisical about a case that could inflame public sentiment. Sporadic readers will just wonder why he recounts every single interview, even the useless ones

I wanted to like this book. I continued despite its implausible story. I persevered even when lifting the book became a Sisyphean effort. Lyle crafted a narrator and ensemble who made me care about them. But that doesn’t offset a story so implausible that it would make me laugh if it didn’t make me cry.

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