SFPD homicide detective Lindsay Boxer investigates a series of lethal arson attacks in James Patterson’s 7TH HEAVEN, with her motley crew of friends aiding and abetting as usual. A cop, an attorney, a medical examiner and a crime beat reporter respectively, Lindsay, Yuki, Claire and Cindy are staple characters in Patterson’s ‘Women’s Murder Club’ series, of which 7TH HEAVEN is the seventh instalment, the last four being co-written with Maxine Paetro.
That Patterson last week announced that the ‘Women’s Murder Club’ is being developed into an interactive computer game for a June release is no surprise. Everything about the ‘WMC’ project is geared to maximise potential readers, from the rainbow-like multi-cultural background of the leading characters to the bells-and-whistles website promoting the brand. Unfortunately, the quality of the story-telling has been woefully neglected in the process.
Among the many crimes against good writing are: narrative sequences irritatingly guillotined into three and four ‘chapters’ to give the illusion of pace; a first-person voice clumsily juxtaposed with third-person narratives; perfect good guys and one-dimensionally nasty baddies; a twist that requires yet another third-person narrative to pop up at the very end; the kind of deathless prose more commonly found in back-cover blurbs (“Who had committed these brutal murders – and why?” Claire helpfully asks herself at one point, just in case the reader is too dim to do any wondering for him or herself). I could go on, but the list is virtually 376 pages long.
Reading 7TH HEAVEN is akin to reading a chunky, clunky CSI: Miami script, albeit one with very bad dialogue. It’s possible that Patterson, a multi-million best-seller and a former winner of the Edgar, crime fiction’s most prestigious accolade, believes that he has earned the right to reinvent the genre with a post-modern offering that obeys no rules. It’s also possible that he has delegated a step too far to Maxine Paetro in this instance, although that’s very likely unfair to Paetro – Patterson has published (writing and co-writing) 52 novels since 1976, a statistic that suggests quality control, and the requirements of a discerning readership, are nowhere near the top of his list of priorities.
That’s a shame, because James Patterson is something of a standard-bearer for crime fiction, which is the most popular genre in fiction for a very good reason. As the old certainties continue to break down, and crime in all its guises threatens to erode our faith in society and common decency, the illusion of closure afforded by the crime fiction narrative can provide a psychic release for many readers.
Tess Gerritsen understands the unspoken contract between the crime fiction writer and reader. Gerritsen too is a prolific writer, and has published more than 25 novels since 1985, but on the evidence of THE BONE GARDEN she is still heavily committed to providing quality to her readers. For the most part a fascinating historical crime narrative set in the 1830s, in which the ‘West End Reaper’ preys on its victims against a backdrop of Boston’s Irish ghettos, the novel also features as a character Oliver Wendell Holmes, a doctor who would go on to revolutionise hospital practice all over the world with his simple discovery that the washing of hands can prevent the spread of disease.
A medical practitioner before she turned to writing full-time, Gerritsen is passionate about her material, and offers a richly detailed story that is almost Dickensian in its evocation of slum poverty. The pace is slow for a thriller, however, and matters aren’t helped by regular intrusions from the present day, in which Julia Hamill investigates the origin of a skeleton she finds in the garden of her new home, a conceit that smacks of a grafted-on concession to readers of Gerritsen’s previous medical thrillers, most of which have contemporary settings. There is also a tendency towards florid prose, and a simplicity in characterisation that finds all the ne’er-do-wells suffering with rotten teeth and stinking breath, while those on the side of the angels are invariably pure of heart if not motive.
For all that, and by comparison with 7TH HEAVEN, THE BONE GARDEN is a meaty and thought-provoking, if at times unwieldy, tale of a time and place rarely visited by the crime fiction genre. Would that all best-selling crime writers were still as ambitious. – Declan Burke
This review was first published in the Irish Times
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.