Wednesday, 1 June 2011

A Simple Act of Violence by R.J. Ellory


Playing LA Noire on the Xbox put me right in the mood for a good police procedural to pick up some tips. This book was no help at all.

It comes across at first as the expected serial killer trash with highbrow pretensions. The chapters switch between the detective and the killer's viewpoints. Some like their whodunnits in the classical mode, but I've always been a fan of Columbo so I don't mind if you see what the other side's up to.

But here's the thing - there's too much of the killer. And, as becomes apparent very quickly, he's not really a serial killer, he's a rogue CIA assassin. This should be a spoiler, but isn't. You get lots of backstory about him getting recruited and getting his hands dirty with the contras in Nicaragua, and it's all really good.

But on the other side you've got a detective on the verge of a nervous breakdown who wanders through everything in a daze. I'm racking my brains to think if he picked up any clues which the killer didn't put in his path deliberately. And he even has trouble picking these up.

I can see the point being made - the unfathomable gap in skill between a CIA agent and a homicide detective. But what becomes comical is that the CIA doesn't appear to cross the detective's mind until far too late. He has a bunch of murder victims whose identities are all false. They're in Washington, where the CIA are based. There are planted clues about Nicaragua. Even when he finally speaks to the killer as a suspect (guided by the killer himself, of course) the guy, apropos of nothing, immediately launches into a speech about the CIA bringing in drugs from South America. The penny stays undropped.

By the end though everything's tied up nicely. And it's really well written throughout, with interesting themes and excellent suspense. It's not a bad book by any means, but the dynamics of a decent thriller are all wonky. Part of the problem is it's way too long, so you end up with far too much of the CIA stuff, when it'd be more effective in snapshots. But the big issue is a complete lack of dramatic tension. Why should you care about a detective who should really be in be in a different book, solving a far easier crime?

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