Manufactured mystery

I tried out a new mystery writer, D. D. Black, on the recommendation of someone on “What Should I Read Next?” and I’m feeling a little conflicted about whether to continue after the first two books. On the one hand, I liked the setting a lot (a small town on one of the many islands and peninsulas off Puget Sound, near Seattle), and I also liked the main character, Thomas Austin. He’s a former NYPD detective who, after a personal tragedy, retired on his pension to the Pacific Northwest and bought a combination mini-mart, café, and bait shop to keep him marginally occupied (not a lot of traffic). He’s smart and interesting and intuitive, and a little dark. I also liked the secondary characters, including Anna, a reporter/blogger destined to become a love interest in a future novel if Thomas can get out of his own way, and the three officers from the local police force—Ridley, Lucy, and Jimmy. I also like Austin’s corgi, Run.

What I didn’t particularly care for was the mysteries themselves. I know I have maintained in previous blog posts that mystery lovers read as much for the characters as they do for the mysteries, and that although the plots fade into one another, interest in the character’s ongoing storyline is what keeps the readers coming back. But the caveat to that is, the mysteries have to be at least marginally believable and present some sort of cohesive story arc to provide the background for a favorite detective, and…these didn’t, in my opinion.

The debut volume, The Bones at Point No Point, did a nice job of introducing all the characters, and then harked back to a case in which Thomas Austin was the lead detective when he was in New York City. It seems there is now a copycat killer on the loose, but the details are so eerily similar that it has him (and everyone else) wondering if he locked up the wrong woman or, at least, missed that she had a partner. This sounds plausible as a bare-bones description, but the likelihood of any of it was highly suspect. Also, for his first novel D. D. Black chose to portray a particularly gruesome murder scenario, in shocking detail, and I didn’t want to read about it, especially because he described it several times in scenes from the past and circumstances in the present.

I thought about stopping with the first, but then read the description for the second, The Shadows of Pike Place, and was intrigued. This was more of a “locked-room” mystery, in that the protagonist was murdered during an evening when she was in the company of a limited number of people, and therefore the killer had to be one of those present. Again, I enjoyed the dynamic between Austin and Anna, the introduction of the Seattle police chief, and the colorful characters Black writes as members of the murdered woman’s family; but again, the mystery took off in various weird directions and the result was dependent on so many doubtful events that I found it somewhat absurd and also anticlimactic.

These are what I call “manufactured” mysteries, in that the scenario is so out of the box that it strains credulity. In both cases, I would have much preferred a tamer mystery less dependent on extraordinary events, one that showcased its detective’s abilities rather than dropping him in the midst of chaos and expecting sense to be made of it when it wasn’t plausible in the first place.

I may come back to this series someday, just for the characters and locales, but I think I’m done with the Thomas Austin Crime Thrillers for now—they’re just too frustrating.

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