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My book club's choice for May was The Fault Tree, by Louise Ure. We choose books by a different method each month, and this month we decided to read a mystery featuring a person with a disability. This was based on a discussion we'd had about classic TV mysteries, which led to a discussion of Ironsides, which led to a discussion of people with disabilities as featured in mysteries...which led us to The Fault Tree.
Cadence Moran lost her sight in a tragic accident (details of which are revealed little by little throughout the book), but her finely tuned ear and independent spirit allow her to earn a living as an auto mechanic. The setting is the blazing hot city of Tucson, Arizona, where Cadence lives alone and avoids her alcoholic mother. However, Cadence is not a loner at all--she does have relationships and friends, who are the book's cast members. The plot is based on a misunderstanding. A woman is murdered and the killer believes that Cadence is a witness and must therefore be eliminated. Because Cadence is so independent, however, the killer doesn't realize that Cadence is blind and couldn't possibly have seen anything.
The book, while labeled "A Mystery" on its cover, is really a mixture of a mystery (though we do find out the murderer's identity quite a bit before the end of the book) and a sort of "damsel in distress" suspense novel along the lines of Mary Higgins Clark. While the cops are chasing leads and trying to figure out who's stalking Cadence, the heroine is busy protecting herself from the stalker.
We had a very lively discussion about this book, and if you read it you will see why. Our overall conclusion was that we had rarely read a book where the author did so many things WELL and so many things POORLY.
As a novel, we felt it really succeeded in drawing a superb main character and supporting cast; and its setting is meticulously well realized (you can feel yourself sweating as Ure describes the streets of Tucson). Cadence Moran is fully realized and complicated, but she is the narrator of only about a third of the book. Alternating chapters are told in third-person viewpoint from other perspectives, including those of the villain and the investigating cops. We tend to like shifting viewpoints, and we thought that was very well handled here.
In addition, the pacing is really excellent--it's hard to put the book down once you get past a certain point. And the author avoids the easy answers, concluding her story well but without oversimplifying it. In addition, there are some complications to the mystery where innocent people are hurt, which we felt added another unique dimension and twist to the book.
However, as a mystery, THE FAULT TREE is really very flawed, and this is where we scratched our heads. There are at least half a dozen occasions in the book where smart people--including the quite smart heroine--act in ways that defy all human comprehension. It's hard to go into details without spoilers, but all the characters do incredibly stupid things--in one chapter, worrying about their safety, and then in the next chapter making decisions that would jeopardize not only their own safety but also that of the people they love.
The villains, too, seem to be drawn out of the Oliver Stone film NATURAL BORN KILLERS; and their motivation makes little sense, unless you think of their sole motivation being the desire to propel the story. They were probably the dumbest criminals in the history of crime fiction; and this is despite the fact that Ure points out on several occasions that neither one of them is dumb (at least academically).
There are coincidences galore, too--including a found object in an exceedingly improbable place that leads to a highly unlikely plot turn in the last 10 pages. The book's drawn-out climax strains believability to the breaking point...If this were a film, the audience would be glued to their seats, and then immediately afterwards say, "That was completely ridiculous."
In the end, though, we did enjoy the book--probably more at the beginning, and more for the sake of the heroine, than for the outlandish story. I realized that I personally have recommended the book several times, but always with a caveat. Overall our feeling was that we would give future titles by this author a look because she really knows how to get your blood racing, and she knows how to tell a story. If only that story could be a little more grounded in reality.