“The Favor” Needed More Suspense

The husband and wife team who write as Nicci French are acclaimed as “masters of psychological suspense” and their latest, The Favor, has the short chapters we expect from suspense novels.  But “masters”?  A major secret is pretty obvious from the prologue onward, and that drains a lot of energy from the over-long, over-crowded story.

Jude is a London doctor whose ex-boyfriend Liam re-enters her life after eleven years and asks for a favor he won’t explain.  Liam wants her to take his car and drive to a rural cottage, use his credit card en route and not her own, then meet him when he arrives later by train.  The favor has to be kept absolutely secret, and  Liam will only tell her what’s going on when he gets there.

She says yes.  And why?  Because after the two of them survived a car accident as teenagers, his life turned out badly while hers was a relative success, so she feels guilty.  That’s supposedly it.  But it doesn’t quite add up, and if you read the prologue carefully, you’ll guess what her real reason is, something the authors reveal about two hundred pages into the book.

Liam is murdered and having said “yes” to his request gets Jude involved in a police investigation where she’s a prime suspect and the detective sounds more like a therapist than an investigator.  When it’s exposed, Jude also has to explain her bizarre behavior to her fiancé, her parents, Liam’s parents, Liam’s unsavory friends and Liam’s lover in a round of cringe-worthy encounters.  

She plunges more deeply into the mystery of what Liam was up to when she discovers he’s made her one of the executors of his will and she agrees because “for whatever bizarre reason, he had chosen her for this task.”  Well, that’s just half the story: she has a profound reason to agree, something that would make almost anyone feel indebted and we can guess way too early.

Liam’s financial affairs were a total mess and people keep telling her to back off, but she doesn’t.  She feels so helpless and trapped, though, that it’s hard to believe she could help anyone as a doctor. Jude is the kind of heroine who viewers would yell at when she’s on a TV or movie screen: “Don’t do it!”  Though she’s supposed to be a competent doctor, she seems clueless and lacks agency, and the authors at times seem to be indulging in what crime fiction fans call “femjep.”

Jude lets herself be repeatedly insulted and these interactions are annoying–more seriously, she doesn’t seem much interested in who might have killed Liam until after p. 300.

Despite its flaws and extraneous detail, the book has some good lines in it.  Like this one when she heads home after a long shift at her hospital and feels a migraine coming on: “Jude held her migraine at bay all the way home, pushing her bike for the last mile as if a moment of clumsiness might tip the pain over like a scalding liquid.”

Migraine sufferers might of course wonder why she chose to ride her bike instead of taking an Uber….

Lev Raphael is the former crime fiction reviewer for The Detroit Free Press and has also reviewed for The Washington Post and a handful of public radio stations.  He’s the author of ten Nick Hoffman mysteries.

 

 

How Dumb Can a Thriller Character Be?

Picture yourself after being hit by a car.  You wake up in a hospital bruised and battered, with big gaps in your memory. Your foot is damaged and you can’t walk without assistance when you’re released because it’s painful and difficult.

So when the husband you don’t remember brings you home to the enormous house you don’t remember, and says that you can sleep in the guestroom on the first floor, you of course insist on sleeping in your bedroom up a double flight of stairs, right?  You obviously need the challenge, and you “don’t want to be any trouble.”

That’s the case even though you don’t know your way around, you don’t have crutches (standard issue in a situation like this), but you did get a measly little cane which barely supports you when you try to walk and which you keep dropping.

You haven’t made any attempt to contact your friends at work or any other friends while you’ve been in the hospital, and even though you can’t seem to get internet service at home, you don’t really question your husband about these missing colleagues and friends.  You just let it slide.

Trying to jog your memory, you study a photo album where you notice that the hair on the back of your husband’s head in a mirror is a different color than the rest of his hair. Of course you’re only mildly puzzled since you’ve never heard of Photoshop.

When you finally discover that your husband isn’t who he claims to be, you crisscross the extravagant kitchen multiple times in your attempts to escape (and make a phone call) and while doing so, you avoid picking up anything that could be a weapon. You just hobble back and forth and don’t bother grabbing a knife, a weighty meat tenderizer, a pot or a pan.

Why? Because you’re an idiot. Because you’re a heroine in a film that gives “femjep” a bad name.

You’re not the only idiot on screen. The detective who figures out that there’s something fishy about your husband comes to your house alone. No call for backup. An ex-cop I interviewed for my latest mystery recently told me that this is one of the most frustrating things he sees on TV and in films: cops going cowboy. “It doesn’t happen,” he said.

But it has to happen in films written by people who think the audience is too dumb to know better.

Secret Obsession is only about ninety minutes long, but it’s a black hole of stupidity. There’s a pretty house to ogle and the leads have nice hair, but that’s about the best it can offer.  Don’t waste your time, unless you enjoy yelling at characters who just can’t seem to do anything right.

Lev Raphael is the author of State University of Murder and two dozen other books in many genres. He offers creative writing workshops, editing, and mentoring online at writewithoutorders.com.

When A Character Seems TSTL

TSTL is a term used in the mystery reading/writing community for Too Stupid To Live. These are the characters in books and on big or small screens who seem to be smart but then make ridiculous mistakes that totally undermine their credibility. It’s the person who’s fully aware that a serial killer is on the loose who walks into their house and doesn’t turn on any lights. Readers or viewers howl in disbelief, press the pause button, or toss the book across the room.

I was recently watching an excellent British crime series that features some very strong woman detectives, and was very disappointed with a sudden plot twist.

The capable, resourceful, dedicated, and fiercely intelligent woman detective got a call and rushed off to meet someone, refusing to take anyone with her.  She also didn’t say where she was going or why.  The source she was meeting was closely connected to more than one murder and was possibly going to supply crucial information the detective’s whole team had been unable to get.

So what happens?  We see her in conversation at a restaurant but don’t see who it is (though we can guess), and she excuses herself to make a call to her chief to let him know she’s on to “something big.”  Okay, informing her superior is believable, and so is wanting some prvacy, but she doesn’t just step outside of the restaurant.

She crosses the street.

And walks down a dark alley.

With her back turned to passersby and traffic.

So of course she’s attacked before revealing what she knows.  The ambulance can’t get there quickly enough.  She dies.

This was infuriating.  There was no reason at all for her to behave the way she did, from start to finish, and it contradicted her character arc over four+ seasons.  Yes, she was impulsive, but never stupid.

Another term in the mystery world that applies here is “femjep.”  That’s when writers of whatever kind put a woman in ridiculous jeopardy.  It serves the plot, but it’s both retrograde and foolish.  Here, it was especially infuriating because you felt the writers wanted an unhappy ending to the season, and so they wrenched the character way out of whack.

Lev Raphael loves crime fiction and is the author of the acclaimed Nick Hoffman mysteries.  He teaches online creative writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com.