Monday, July 23, 2007

Mystery Book Review: The Black Tea Experiments by Ray Atkinson

Mysterious ReviewsMysterious Reviews, mysteries reviewed by the Hidden Staircase Mystery Books, has written a review of The Black Tea Experiments by Ray Atkinson. For our blog readers, we are printing it first here in advance of its publication on our website.The Black Tea Experiments by Ray Atkinson

The Black Tea Experiments by Ray Atkinson
Non-Series

American Book Publishing (Trade Paperback)
ISBN-10: 1-58982-370-2 (1589823702)
ISBN-13: 978-1-58982-370-9 (9781589823709)
Publication Date: March, 2007
List Price: $18.00

Synopsis (from the publisher): Logan Bauer, a brilliant college student, has a promising future. However, when his girlfriend is accused of murdering fellow student Brent Johnson, Logan must go on a quest to discover the truth that will set her free. Logan's journey soon takes him to the former Soviet Union and into the hands of the infamous Dr. Vladimir Rostov, a former scientist who worked on several top-secret medical projects during the Cold War, including the Black Tea Experiments, a drug that would enhance the learning ability of children and ultimately increase the intelligence level of future Soviet generations.

But everything isn't as it seems. The two worlds of the former Soviet Union and the quaint college town of Crandon, Illinois, soon collide, forcing Logan to uncover the pieces of Rostov's twenty-five-year-old secret.

Review: Ray Atkinson coins the term "airplane novel" for his first mystery, The Black Tea Experiments, a book long enough to provide suspense, action, crime and romance in a story that can be completed during the length of a typical flight. Terrific concept, but, at least in this first attempt, rather poorly executed.

There's a fairly intriguing plot at the core of this book: a student at a university in Illinois is found murdered but with an unusual physical feature: one of his kidneys had been recently removed, the incision neatly and expertly sewn together. A fellow student, Logan Bauer, finds himself drawn into the case when an astronomical experiment he is conducting using a telescope on the roof of his dorm accidentally captures the scene of the murder when a spring breaks and the lens points downward instead of skyward. Pursued by the killers for the images taken by the telescope, Logan discovers he is merely a pawn in an international incident that had its origins back in the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

The problems in The Black Tea Experiments begin with the very first chapter. Every character, even a minor one, is introduced with a backstory. For a book of less than 150 pages and a dozen or more characters, it's overwhelming. Furthermore, these backstories seem intended to take the place of character development, as if by knowing how the characters came to be where they are today the reader can somehow infer something meaningful about them. Finally, it's impossible to generate any real, sustained suspense when the flow of the plot is constantly interrupted with yet another backstory for yet another usually unnecessary character. This is all the more unfortunate because the main story has a lot of potential to be a terrific thriller.

The book is riddled with errors and inconsistencies that could have been eliminated with a more critical eye towards editing. The director of the Black Tea project ridicules the ignorance of the parents whose children are the subject of the experiments, yet he includes his own children in them. Logan travels west (instead of east) to go from Illinois to Indiana. He goes through customs leaving (instead of entering) the US. In any transplant, the time between extraction of the organ from the donor and its placement in the recipient is critical, yet here, days or maybe even weeks, it's not clear, go by between the respective surgeries. This also contradicts a statement made in the book that the surgery takes place in the US rather than Russia because there wasn't time to get the kidney out of the country. And probably worse of all, especially for a mystery, no explanation is ever given why the kidney donor, the murder victim, was killed in the first place. It's disturbing that Atkinson took the time to develop an interesting plot, yet didn't seem to care enough about the details that are so crucial to the success of a crime novel.

There is almost certainly a market for mysteries and thrillers that are longer than a short story but shorter than a standard-length novel ("airplane novels" as it were). Unfortunately, The Black Tea Experiments isn't a very good example of one.

Special thanks to Spotlight Publicity for providing an ARC of The Black Tea Experiments for this review.

Review Copyright © 2007 — Hidden Staircase Mystery Books — All Rights Reserved.

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Lance Wright owns and manages Omnimystery, a Family of Mystery Websites, which had its origin as Hidden Staircase Mystery Books in 1986. As the scope of the business expanded, first into book reviews — Mysterious Reviews — and later into information for and reviews of mystery and suspense television and film, all sites were consolidated under the Omnimystery brand in 2006.

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