Thursday, March 04, 2010

Mystery Book Review: Slow Fire by Ken Mercer

Mysterious Reviews, mysteries reviewed by the Hidden Staircase Mystery Books, is publishing a new review of Slow Fire by Ken Mercer. For our blog readers, we are printing it first here in advance of its publication on our website.

Slow Fire by Ken Mercer

by
A Will Magowan Mystery

St. Martin's Minotaur (Hardcover)
ISBN-10: 0-312-55835-X (031255835X)
ISBN-13: 978-0-312-55835-2 (9780312558352)
Publication Date: February 2010
List Price: $25.99

Review: Ken Mercer's debut thriller, Slow Fire, introduces Will Magowan, newly hired police chief of the small northern California town of Haydenville, investigating the unexplained death of a young woman and the curious abundance of methamphetamine circulating throughout the region.

Will had been living a quiet life following his forced exit from the LAPD narcotic division when he's hired by the mayor of Haydenville -- sight unseen -- to be their chief of police. Desperate for a job, but also a change, he accepts and is immediately embroiled in a dispute with the town officials over whether the death of a young woman, found in her kayak on the shore of a local river, is accidental or suspicious. The mayor wants Will to focus on the town's drug problem, but even that causes conflict for Will when he suspects the town's "poet laureate" and general benefactor to be the source of the drugs.

Slow Fire certainly has some of the right fundamental elements for a first-rate thriller -- crisp writing, descriptive narrative and credible dialog, and perfect pacing (notwithstanding the ultra-short chapters favored by the author, some not even a page in length, that are clearly in vogue but annoying nonetheless) -- but three serious flaws mar the final result.

** SPOILER ALERT **

The character of Will Magowan shares some remarkable similarities to Robert B. Parker's Jesse Stone, almost to the point of distraction. Both were fired from their jobs with the LAPD (Jesse as a homicide detective for alcohol abuse, Will as a narcotics officer for substance abuse), both are divorced but still in love with their ex-wives (who, at least initially, still play a role in their lives), and both were hired by small communities (Paradise MA for Jesse, Haydenville CA for Will) to be their chief of police. Even their sidekick deputies are virtual clones of each other: Luther "Suitcase" Simpson for Jesse Stone and Thomas "Mr. T." for Will Magowan. Where they differ -- and not in a good way -- is Will's lack of charm and moral compass. At one point he says, "It's still our job to enforce [the law], Thomas. We don't get to pick and choose." Yet that's exactly what he proceeds to do, choosing an "ends justify the means" approach to law enforcement by forging witness statements and killing a suspect. This is a tough character to embrace.

As a fictional thriller, it's probably not unexpected that the plot of Slow Fire might be a little far-fetched. But much of what happens is really hard to believe, from the high-tech, high-production methamphetamine lab in the middle of a national forest (the logistics of supply, maintenance, and distribution are never really explained), to the DEA being willing to shut it down as a public relations stunt but not prosecute the owner of the lab, to the various offices and departments of the US government that are cooperatively and tacitly supporting the owner's criminal venture because of events that took place 40 years ago. (The author does, however, within the context of the story invite Will, and by extension the reader, to look up the history of the events that form the foundation of the story by providing specific references.) Somewhat ironically, the murder mystery that represents a tangential subplot is the most interesting and believable part of the story.

Finally, Will's personal backstory is overly melodramatic. Early on it is learned his young son died while he was on a case. Inserted throughout the text is the simple line "(i wasn't there --)", with the "i" curiously left lowercase, presumably to emphasize how bad Will still feels about it. It is foreshadowed almost from the beginning that a situation will arise when Will will be there. And when it happens, it is so contrived that it weakens the already less than plausible plot.

As the first of a series, maybe the author is doing a little housekeeping, getting some of the character's background details out of the way in Slow Fire. His style lends itself well to thrillers, though; hopefully subsequent books in the series will focus on what could be, and should be, intriguing -- but credible -- tales of life and crime in a small town in northern California.

Special thanks to St. Martin's Minotaur for providing a copy of Slow Fire for this review.

Review Copyright © 2010 — Hidden Staircase Mystery Books — All Rights Reserved

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If you are interested in purchasing Slow Fire from Amazon.com, please click the button to the right. Slow Fire (Kindle edition) is also available. Learn more about the Kindle, Amazon's Wireless Reading Device.

Synopsis (from the publisher): One morning, Will Magowan opens his mail and finds a mysterious job offer to become the police chief of Haydenville, a tiny town in rural Northern California.

Once a highly decorated LAPD narcotics detective, Will was terminated after a devastating personal tragedy drove him to become addicted to the heroin he was charged with keeping off the streets. Fresh out of rehab but jobless and estranged from his wife, Will now lives alone in an old Airstream trailer on the fringes of L.A.

Out of options, Will accepts the job. After moving to Haydenville, he discovers that the once postcard-perfect town is being corrupted by a criminal influence that threatens to destroy it.

Haydenville’s normally law-abiding citizens begin to erupt in acts of unspeakable violence. Pets are going missing at an alarming rate. Stately Victorian homes are falling into disrepair.

With only a rookie officer at his disposal, Will risks everything in his quest to save Haydenville—entering a labyrinth of dark secrets that have remained buried for almost 40 years.

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