Book review: a pair of pairs

Preferring to believe in serendipity than a kind of internal morphic resonance, I have by chance read in direct succession two books by pairs of authors. One is a series, the other not.

First up, Guilt, by G. H. Ephron — actually Hallie Ephron (sister of Nora, Delia and Amy) and forensic neuropsychologist Donald Davidoff — this pair has written their fifth Dr Peter Zak crime-fiction novel. I suppose I read the first, Amnesia, as a result of one of those Amazon recommendations leading on from Jonathan Kellerman, whose early books are just so, so good. I followed up immediately on Amnesia by reading Addiction and Delusion. All are excellent, featuring the aforementioned Dr Peter Zak of the Pearce Psychiatric Unit, and combine his working life at the unit with (you guessed it) a related crime to solve. Obsessed, the next book, left me with the slight feeling that the series may have peaked, but nevertheless I was very keen to read Guilt. I’ve been waiting for ages for it to come out in paperback, but thanks to an Amazon seller and the Palm Beach County Library system, who seem to have finished with their copy, I was able to get a jump on cheap publication.

Unfortunately, Guilt confirms to me my impression that the series has become a tad mechanical. The authors have shifted the emphasis away from the Pearce (so we barely get any of Gloria or the rivalry between Zak and his colleague Dr Kim, and only a couple of patients feature; Peter’s mother is reduced to a convenient plot device instead of a character in her own right), and away from Zak himself onto Annie, a character introduced relatively recently. Annie is a recognisable genre cliche: "perfect girlfriend/investigator/feminist" who can do it all without a man, but who would quite like to get married really. By focusing on her, Guilt becomes too much like all the other crime-fiction novels out there, and loses its distinctive neuropsychology "voice". Added to this, Guilt attempts to address post-9/11 paranoia via a plot about a Harvard bomber, which I don’t feel is entirely successful.

I don’t mean to say the book isn’t good — it certainly is. But the authors have to fall back on the usual "girl in peril" angle to keep up the tension, and the tracking down and identity of the bomber is nothing like as nail-biting as some of the patient-related plots of the earlier books. I would recommend Guilt if you liked the earlier books in the series, but don’t read this one first. I hope that if the authors write another one, they return to a Zak/Pearce-centered plot and cut down the Annie quotient (Sara Paretsky does the woman investigator thing so much better).

The second paired novel is Catch Me When I Fall by Nicci French. NF is the husband and wife team of Nicci Gerrard and Sean French. They have written several excellent crime-fiction books together, each being a stand-alone, so each focuses on a different issue, usually of contemporary urban life. A woman is almost always the central character, but presented as a real, fallible person, not a superheroine, a good start.

Catch me when I fall (another book obtained pre-paperback release but actually in paperback by some Amazonimagic — I have my theories) almost blows it for me. It is written from the point of view of a character who is so unsympathetic that I fairly often lost interest and almost put the book down for good. Not that it isn’t well written, but I just could not understand why anyone would put up with this stupid woman. Having to view the world through her perception was just so annoying! However, just as I got to the point of no return, we hit part 2, in which another character takes over the narration. This has the dual positive effect of allowing one to see the main character more at a distance, with the result that she is immediately more bearable; and increases the tension, because now we don’t know if she is going to die at the end (as advertised in the prologue) or not.

The plot outcome is pretty obvious (though I do read a lot of these books!), but that doesn’t matter. As usual with Nicci French, the writing is so good, and the context of the book far richer than just the "crime" aspect, that one feels pleased to have read the book, and to have gained some insight in the process. It is not the best book of this collaboration, but definitely recommended.

Incidentally, as I’ve mentioned previously, Nicci Gerrard has written two novels under her own name, Solace and Things we Knew Were True, which I highly recommend. They are not genre fiction. Both are excellent, extremely readable and perceptive portraits of women and the effects of their families on their lives. I suppose they are like Joanna Trollope but edgier and more intimate.