Tuesday, September 14, 2010

To Darkness and to Death by Julia Spencer-Fleming

To Darkness and to Death by Julia Spencer-Fleming, 2005

Spencer-Fleming's fourth installment in her Miller's Kill series had a lot to live up to. The third volume was a terrific thriller and an excellent novel in its own right. To Darkness and to Death, like the previous three books, is a delightful, skillful ride, but it suffers slightly in comparison to its predecessors.

The novel occurs in real-time, from many different viewpoints. It's Russ's birthday and also the day of a black-tie gala to celebrate the sale of timberland to a Malaysian corporation.

Not everyone is happy about the sale, which is primed to put a logging company and a paper mill out of business. When the heiress to the timberland disappears, Russ, Clare and the people of Miller's Kill are drawn into a tangle of violence, murder and interwoven stories.

The real-time device is clever and Spencer-Fleming executes it well, but I don't think it was quite the right move for this series. The previous three novels all unfolded at a slower pace, with more emphasis on the characters. This entry seems like Spencer-Fleming's attempt to emulate more action-packed fiction.

She emulates it quite well. The book is the very definition of a page-turner. About a third of the way into the book things really kick into high gear and don't let up until the literally explosive finale.

But even though the book is an extremely entertaining read, it's disappointing that Russ and Clare were given such short shrift. The novel focuses far more on a few new characters than on the main ones. We don't even get to experience the blowback from Russ and Clare's first kiss.

Spencer-Fleming is still a damn good writer, who can write action, humor and shattering drama with equal finesse (a scene between two minor characters late in the book is pretty phenomenal). She's excellent at describing how her characters feel, although she sometimes has trouble with their actual motivation.

He was thinking what to do with the body as he walked around the tower. He wasn't cocky, but he was rather pleased by his composure and rationality-- until he stepped around a birch tree and finally saw Eugene van der Hoeven up close. There was something wrong about the way Eugene's limbs lay. As if he were a mannequin put together in a hurry. Or a marionette doll flung aside by a careless child. Shaun started shaking. His breath sawed in and out, too fast, until black spots swam in front of his eyes. Eugene wasn't a person anymore; he was a broken thing. And Shaun had done it to him. (page 141)

Another problem with the novel is that the constant connections and coincidences in the storyline eventually becomes a bit much. The book's main narrative relies a little too heavily on pure chance for my taste.

But, flaws aside, To Darkness and to Death (although probably the weakest so far of the Russ/Clare series) is an excellent read. The prose and characters are top-notch. Spencer-Fleming just needs to focus a little more on story next time.

NEXT UP: Knots and Crosses, by Ian Rankin.

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