Top critical review
Pretty good entry in this series
on January 27, 2002
After having read -- and been annoyed by -- three previous entries in this series, I had sworn I'd never read another Death On Demand mystery. But I was intrigued enough by some of the reviews of this book to give it a whirl. And it is in many ways much, much better than some of the other Carolyn Hart books I've tried.
I have never felt like I was being given a chance to really KNOW the sleuths, Annie and Max. In previous books, the author kept stepping between me and them and insisting on how I should think -- "Annie is like THIS. Max is like THAT." In the end, I was told so much that I should have been shown, that I felt nothing for the sleuths at all. Hart still interferes, insisting on character traits she should be demonstrating, and there is far too much about what Max and Annie look like, as opposed to what they are like. But Annie's concern for a teenage girl comes through pretty well, and I found myself believing it. Likewise, her reluctant feelings for her estranged father eventually became believable when Hart stopped insisting.
I didn't buy the estranged father's excuses for why he'd been gone so long any more than some other reviewers have. If you really, really want to know where your child is, and only one person on earth can help you, you go to that person and make a nuisance of yourself. You don't phone and write a few times and then give up. This element of the plot was thin. Max's behaviour ("You think YOUR dad was bad? Let me tell you about MINE!") is insensitive, and I would have been more convinced if the lovebirds had had a knock-down fight over it, with a suitable reconciliation later. Hart, however, does not seem interested in delving very deeply into this relationship, and to that extent she leaves her sleuths as two pretty, but rather empty, shells.
Max's mother, on the other hand, is a hoot in this novel. And I usually agree with readers who find her irritating and unbelievable beyond words. I don't quite see why Annie, who knows Laurel is nuts, is suddenly so worried about her. And when a minor character frets that seances and such "aren't God's will," I wasn't convinced by Hart's pious disclaimer that this minor character represented "true goodness," and would be ignored at peril. I don't like people telling me what is and isn't "God's will." It too often leads to boycotts of libraries that carry books about little English wizards, and protesters explaining why God hates various sexual orientations. Hart's tendency to sermonize isn't pronounced in this novel, but that one jarred.
There are fewer extraneous references to every mystery ever written in this than in most of the "Death On Demand" novels, which is a relief. Annie's first scene features lists of other books and authors, but then Hart gets this urge under control for most of the story and mainly sticks to the point.
The real problem with this mystery is, unfortunately, the mystery itself. Hart introduces the potential victims and suspects in the first chapter, then ignores most of them in favour of Annie and her personal life for the next hundred or so pages. Which means that by the time someone is finally offed (about halfway through the book) I had forgotten who these people were -- and the explanation of their relationships was confusing. At one point, it sounds as if everyone is siblings. Then we see that some are one character's stepchildren. Then the stepmother's sister sounds as if she's actually a sibling of the stepchildren... It was confusing. And since she doesn't spend any time developing these characters, it was hard to care who did it or why. There is an obvious, overly-clever solution to the mystery, and that turns out to be it.
Hart also needs to learn a little more about what personal information is and isn't freely available on the Internet, because she has a public librarian performing feats of spying the CIA might envy. As a librarian, I am dubious. And doing things the easy way like this doesn't help the book -- the sleuths don't need to be clever or to interview the suspects, they only need a magical computer. At one point, Annie muses that conversation is a better way of gatherin information than clicking a mouse. If only Hart really believed that, it would have improved her subplot. (Hart has a habit in this book of writing in unexplained technical miracles -- at one point, someone "rigged the lights' so they'd go out at a crucial juncture. As far as I can find, we are never told HOW.)
Overall, better-written than most of this series, and with more humanity. A middling, but reasonably enjoyable, read.