Saturday, April 03, 2010

Mystery Book Review: The 24th Letter by Tom Lowe

Mysterious Reviews: Mystery, Suspense, Thriller and Crime Novel Reviews, edited by the Hidden Staircase Mystery Books

A Sean O'Brien Mystery

St. Martin's Minotaur (Hardcover)
ISBN-10: 0-312-37918-8 (0312379188)
ISBN-13: 978-0-312-37918-6 (9780312379186)
Publication Date: March 2010
List Price: $25.99

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The 24th Letter by Tom Lowe
Buy The 24th Letter by Tom Lowe

Review: Former Miami homicide detective Sean O'Brien gets drawn back into what everyone considered to be a closed case when he learns a man on death row, his execution only days way, may be innocent in The 24th Letter, the second mystery in this series by Tom Lowe.

Career criminal Sam Spelling is on his way to a courthouse to testify against one of his own when he's shot by a sniper. Near death, he confesses to Father John Callahan that he knows Charlie Williams, a killer scheduled to be put to death by the state in less than 84 hours, is innocent, that he witnessed the real killer frame Williams for the crime. Father Callahan calls his old friend Sean O'Brien, the detective in charge of the investigation that ended in Williams' conviction, to give him the news. O'Brien rushes to meet with the priest, but between the time that Spelling delivers his signed statement to Father Callahan and before Callahan can give it to O'Brien, both men are killed, the confession disappearing. O'Brien can't convince the authorities to stop the execution without concrete proof ... something he must get before time runs out for an innocent man.

Despite the rather improbable premise of The 24th Letter, the story plays out reasonably well, due in no small part to the solidly developed, if somewhat derivative, character of Sean O'Brien. And though the plot moves along briskly, assisted by a nearly constant noting of the passage of time, the prose tends to be overly dramatic, at times clunky. Consider this typical passage:

The clouds parted and the three-quarter moon revealed itself. O'Brien could see it was slightly more rounded than yesterday. It would be a full moon this time next week. Unless O'Brien caught a killer, Charlie Williams would be executed before a full moon rose over the Atlantic.

A mysterious drawing in blood left by Father Callahan while he is dying gives the book its title, but the clues to its meaning seem almost unnecessary for O'Brien in tracking down the real killer. Still, in the end it confirms his suspicions and adds an interesting twist to the story.

There must be some rule in the manual to writing thrillers that states no chapter must be longer than three or four pages. Lowe has applied this rule fairly rigorously (averaging 3.5 pages per chapter in this book), but often in the most awkward manner. Chapters tend to end and new ones begin in the middle of scenes, sometimes even during a conversation between two characters. Most likely intended as mini-cliffhangers, while this technique may keep readers turning the pages, seeking a natural breaking point to pause, it also makes for a choppy ride.

Special thanks to St. Martin's Minotaur for providing a copy of The 24th Letter for this review.

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

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Synopsis (from the publisher): Father John Callahan hears the confession of a frightened prison inmate, and learns that a man facing lethal injection is innocent. The lead investigator on the case, his friend Sean O'Brien, is still haunted by the case. The 24th letter in the Greek alphabet -- Omega -- may provide the key to uncovering the killer's identity.

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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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