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Borderline Duluth Dishwater
on 23 November 2008
The third in a crime fiction series built around Stride, Serena and Maggie and back in Duluth, Minnesota by Lake Superior after an excursion in Vegas in the previous novel Stripped. In this tale, cop Maggie's suspected of killing her husband, P.I. Serena's assisting a sleazy DA with his blackmail pay-offs and cop Stride's investigating rapes and murders all over the place. In the background there's a stalker who's involved in most of what's going on, a convicted murderer who recently escaped from custody and who now has his eyes bent on revenge - the ultimate focus of his attention being the woman responsible for his incarceration.
I enjoyed Brian Freeman's first two novels (his debut being Immoral) and I was rather disappointed with this one. It's full of incident and complex plot twists, but there's a surprising shallowness to it that stems, I feel, from the settled-down and therefore secure relationship between Stride and Serena. They're living together and that's almost all there is to say about it. Yes, there's an edge-of-your-seat rescue involving the pair of them which is generally well written, but I would have liked to have seen something unrelated to all the criminal investigations that could have provided some alternative entertainment. In a way, Freeman becomes almost obsessed with cramming as much as he can into the story, with kinky sex, several rapes both wanted and unwanted, numerous murders of course, and a bit of blackmail for good measure. There is possibly at least one plot strand too many because I felt a little confused at times as to who's doing what to who and why, yes I know this added an element of mystery and suspense to the story but in the end I got the impression that the finished product was worth less than the sum of its many parts.
In a series such as this, of which there are so many these days, the critical feature for durability and long-term brand survival is the characterisation and the appeal of the lead character/s. The template for the Stride/Serena/Maggie series reminds me a little of Karin Slaughter's Grant County series, which also features a male/female lead with each having independent roles, and a female detective partner supporting the male lead. And again, just as Tolliver and Sarah have an interesting sub-character in Lena Adams, so it is in this novel in that Maggie Bei often comes across as the most interesting personality despite her supporting role. From the outset she's right in the thick of things, being the only suspect in the murder of her husband. She has some unusual secrets that she is relectant to share with Stride, and I found it slightly disappointing that her story and her background wasn't more fully developed because the book promised to do just that but gradually changed direction slightly and moved on into events involving characters of less significance and therefore people the reader is less likely to care much about. Some potentially juicy stories are almost completely abandoned or overlooked, not least that surrounding the dirty County Attorney Dan Erickson and his wife Lauren who tolerates his kinky affairs but has ambitions of her own that she manages by exploiting her husband's political status. Lauren's destiny within the context of this novel was slightly low on credibility given her previous astuteness, while Dan seemed to just disappear from sight.
As for the bad guy in the middle of all this, there was a mild surprise when his real name was revealed and which added a little edge to proceedings, but he lacked any original evil charisma and it was possibly a mistake on the writer's part to keep him out of sight for the majority of the pages because we know who he is from page one so there was no benefit to keeping him concealed later. In fact at 500 pages I think the story was at least 100 too long and could have done with some more ruthless editing.
So despite my being a keen supporter of Brian Freeman's ability as demonstrated by his first two novels, I closed the last page of this one slightly relieved that it was over. Action and suspense, yes, but not a lot of depth, and sad to confess I found it rather forgettable. In fairness, despite the title I gave for this review, it isn't actually as dull as dishwater because there's quite a lot of action and the rescue scene near the end was modestly scary - it's just that once I turned the final page and absorbed all that had gone before, I felt slightly numb and my primary conclusion was that Brian Freeman can do better than this. I still have enough confidence in him to order his next novel The Watcher.