Two damaged souls meet cute while on the job in a two-bit village in the remotest part of British Columbia. Mason Deniaud is a homicide cop, a city boy who has arrived in disgrace – and with a tragic secret – to take over the tiny RCMP force in the town of Kluhane. Callie Sutton is a widely respected member of the SAR (Search and Rescue) force who is dealing with tragedies of her own. I said they “meet cute” because they happen upon each other during a new investigation when Callie sorta saves Mason’s life. As they delve into an ever-widening and disturbing investigation of the disappearance of a group of people, they form a bond of trust, mutual respect and . . . something more?
No, this doesn’t sound like the sort of novel I tend to read and review here, but you can credit that to my mother. When it comes to my writing, Mom has always been my biggest fan. Once in a while, she even reads my blog. She called me a few weeks ago to let me know that Amazon gives away a free book every month. I could give a long ramble here to you about how nothing comes for free, but I’ll keep it short and simply say that, yes, once a month you can choose from a few selected items and have a book uploaded to your Kindle. And so I decided to give it a try with Loreth Anne White’s In the Dark.
Loreth Anne White has a very nice doggie!
White does a good job of painting a picture of the Canadian wilderness during a bleak winter. She creates a likeable pair in Deniaud and Sutton; I wouldn’t bet against the possibility that this is the start of a series. And we get a fairly compelling look into the workings of the SAR task force as it works in conjunction with the police to hunt down a potential murderer. For those of you who like procedurals mixed with romance – and I gather from her biography that White is a teller of romantic tales – you might find yourself interested in following along with Mason and Callie as they team up to solve a mystery.
Only . . . not this mystery.
Because those of you who know me at all well are probably asking yourself – even figuring that I was getting a free book – why I would choose this one. It might have something to do with the blurb:
The promise of a luxury vacation at a secluded wilderness spa has brought together eight lucky guests. But nothing is what they were led to believe. As a fierce storm barrels down and all contact with the outside is cut off, the guests fear that it’s not a getaway. It’s a trap.
Each one has a secret. Each one has something to hide. And now, as darkness closes in, they all have something to fear—including one another.
Alerted to the vanished party of strangers, homicide cop Mason Deniaud and search and rescue expert Callie Sutton must brave the brutal elements of the mountains to find them. But even Mason and Callie have no idea how precious time is. Because the clock is ticking, and one by one, the guests of Forest Shadow Lodge are being hunted. For them, surviving becomes part of a diabolical game.
What does that remind you of, people?
Every so often I come upon these pastiches of Agatha Christie’s classic, And Then There Were None. One was French and quite clever (The Eleventh Little Indian by Jacquemard-Senecal), another, simply called Ten, was a drecky young adult romance where a group of lusty teenagers couldn’t die soon enough. I even reviewed one involving comedians which was terribly un-funny.
In White’s thriller, we find a group of nine strangers who are invited to participate in an all-expenses-paid luxury vacation sponsored by the RAKAM group (at which point, folks, you should start honing your anagrammatic skills): they think they’re flying to a brand-new resort and that they are being courted to provide professional services, housekeeping, catering, medical services, etc., once this hot spot catering to rich folk who want to get away from it all opens.
Rather than ferrying across a river in Devon, these folks fly on a seaplane to . . . well, I don’t want to give much away, but suffice it to say that when it comes to luxury vacations, the RAKAM group has a lot to answer for!
Just in case you’re thinking that I’m a complainer and that the references to Christie here are superficial, even coincidental, early on one of the guests finds nothing less than a copy of Christie’s novel on the coffee table. Unfortunately, Ms. White gets a few details wrong here: first, the title on the cover of this “old hardback from the 1930’s” is Ten Little Indians. This was the title of the 1946 play, but it wasn’t used as a book title until 1964. The second problem is that the woman who opens the book has to make sure that her fellow guests (and the readers?) know what this novel signifies, so she gives away the entire plot, including the solution. Yep, she names the killer over and over again, and explains their motive as well. So I guess Ms. White is catering to Christie fans like me, hoping we will find this aspect of her book something of an homage to the original. She doesn’t make it easy for this reader when she places a copy of a poem on a sheet of paper inside Christie’s book, and the rhyme is . . . well, it’s hardly up to snuff:
- “Nine Little Liars thought they’d escaped.
- One missed a plane, and then there were eight.
- Eight Little Liars flew up into the heavens.
- One saw the truth, and then there were seven.
- Seven Little Liars saw they were in a fix.
- One lost control, and then there were six . . . . . .
It goes on like that. It’s not a great rhyme. There’s not enough of the nursery rhyme spirit to provide a hideous counterpoint to the terror faced by the group. And – spoiler alert – as a guideline to the killer’s plot, it falls apart pretty quickly. Frankly, while I understand the need for a “hook” to get people to pick up this book – heck, I fell for it, although I can blame my mom a little bit for that – but the Christie references are the weakest part of this. The gathering doesn’t really make sense: the people are described as strangers, and yet it soon becomes apparent – particularly after they spend several early chapters saying to each other, “Say, have we met before?” – that most of them have met before! And before you can say, “Be careful of free vacations,” we find ourselves not in the midst of a Christie-like thriller but more of an homage to I Know What You Did Last Summer.
And I have to say that, as much as I figure everyone should read Christie’s classic novel, it appears that the disparate characters in this book already have. The members of the ill-fated gathering refer to the book (and name the killer) constantly! At one point, even though the title on the cover is Ten Little Indians, one character refers to the book’s victims as “soldiers”, and there’s no explanation as to how they could have known about this politically correct shift that occurred relatively recently. I actually thought for a moment that this might be a revealing clue, but the author is not dealing from that sort of deck here. There are no clues, just a lot of viciously mangled corpses that lead to an equally mangled solution, the likes of which you would never find in Christie or any other Golden Age author for that matter.
The narrative structure further dilutes the influence of Dame Agatha by shifting back and forth from the events on this ill-fated tour and the investigation by Mason and Callie, who are far more well-drawn characters than any of the members of the closed circle of suspect/victims. Each chapter is told from the point of view of one of the characters in alternating time frames, which provides fewer twists than it might have and underscores the shallow characterization of the doomed party members, since they all have basically the same voice.
I mean no harm to the hard work White has done here. I guess my point is that when an author references one of the greatest mysteries of all time, to the point that it becomes the foundation of her own story, she invites comparisons to the highest echelon of mystery plotting. And while I knew from the start that the chances of White at least reaching a reasonable plateau were slim to none, I couldn’t help but hope. Ah, well! If In the Dark hadn’t had the Christie hook, it would have probably been a better book. Ironically, however, I would have probably ignored it. So . . . where does that leave us?