I’ve just got to share this post from Junkyard Blog. Not all pictures are worth a thousand words, but that one is.
I picked up Dead Simple by accident. I’d intended to check a book by J. J. Jance out of the library, having not tried her work yet, and through inattention I went home with the book that had been shelved right next to the volume I meant to take. Once I got it home and discovered my mistake, I figured I might as well give it a shot.
I’m not sorry I did. It was an interesting and well-plotted book. I can’t give it the highest accolades, for reasons I’ll explain, but it kept me turning the pages.
The set-up is tremendous. Michael Harrison is a young English entrepreneur. He makes a lot of money and lives in style. He’s about to marry a gorgeous woman whom he loves very much.
When the book begins, Harrison is half-unconscious in the back of a van, pub-crawling with his buddies as part of his bachelor party. Michael has been a ruthless and rather cruel practical joker, especially in relation to his friends’ bachelor parties, and they have a dandy revenge in store for him.
They put him in a coffin (one of the friends works at a mortuary) and bury him in a shallow grave with a bottle of whiskey, a dirty magazine, a flashlight and a walkie-talkie. There’s an air tube to keep him from suffocating. The plan is to leave him there for a few hours, then dig him up again.
Except that there’s an accident, and his friends end up either dead or in a coma.
And when Michael’s partner, who missed the party because of a delayed flight, comes home and hears the news… he does nothing at all. In spite of the fact that he knows Michael is buried out there somewhere.
I love a neat set-up like that. And James keeps the tension rising, revealing information to the reader in careful, cruel doses. When you think things can’t get any worse, they do.
The hero of the book is Detective Superintendent Roy Grace of the Sussex Police (I wish James had chosen another name. Whenever I read “Grace said…” I think of a woman). He’s the most interesting character in the book. A man alone (his beloved wife simply disappeared a few years back), he lives mainly for his work. The big handicap in his career seems to be his advocacy of the use of psychic evidence in his investigations.
Needless to say, that’s a problem for me. I consider most (perhaps all) psychics frauds. If any are not frauds, then they are in contact with dangerous spiritual forces, and anyone who contacts them is putting himself in severe peril. The author’s bio on the flyleaf says that Peter James has a “deep interest” in the paranormal.
This is not quite “playing the game,” by the rules of traditional detective fiction. Dorothy Sayers, in her essay “Problem Picture” in The Mind of the Maker, quotes the following question asked of applicants to the Detection Club:
PRESIDENT: Do you promise that your Detectives shall well and truly detect the Crimes presented to them, using those Wits which it shall please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance upon, nor making use of, Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or the Act of God?
CANDIDATE: I do.
Of course times have changed, and Miss Sayers wouldn’t have cared for a whole lot of what goes on in mysteries today. But I can’t help thinking that appealing to the supernatural in what is presented as a standard mystery is a bit of a deus ex machina. I think I’d feel the same if prayer were used similarly in a Christian mystery (but who knows? Maybe I’m deluding myself).
Detective Grace’s tentative attempts to begin dating again, in his rare free moments, provide an appealing subplot, helping to flesh out what is really the only fully-rounded character in a plot-driven book.
But the plot is driven very well indeed.
All in all an entertaining novel, but I have no great desire to read more by the author.