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The crime fiction genre is crammed to the gills with novels. The genre is a broad one that can cover the simple pot boiling mystery to dark serial killers or light village based murders. As a rule it is looked down upon when it comes to serious matters, with authors preferring to release their work in the modern fiction section to imply gravitas; even when the book is actually about a crime. There is a lot of rubbish out there in the crime genre, but some authors are as good as any other fiction writer; Don Winslow is brilliant, whilst Michael Connelly is an expert at creating gripping and well written crime noir. These authors, and many others, sometimes tackle bigger issues in their crime books; racism, assault, disability, fear, post traumatic stress. When tackling the bigger issues the book needs to ascend the standard pulp crime fiction levels. Would James Hall be able to introduce a character with dementia into one of his crime books and treat the subject matter sympathetically?
Alexandra is a driven police photographer whose past has made her closed off to almost everyone, including her husband Stan. Their lives are not getting any easier and the relationship is looking rocky when Alexandra's father moves in; an ex cop with early onset Alzheimer's and a penchant for firing off weaponry in the house. Alex has also picked up a case of a serial killer on the loose and it's hitting close to home. Meanwhile, Stan is getting increasingly bored with life and is starting to think that it is time he made a change. Can Alexandra hold her home life together whilst still trying to uncover a killer?
'Body Language' is a very generic slice of crime fiction and in most cases I would not have an issue with this. However, there are levels of generic, and this is perhaps one of the most linear books I have ever read. There are far too few characters in the book; Alexander, her husband and father, three suspicious criminals and two suspects. With so few people to choose from any fan of crime fiction will guess who the killer is very early on and this will undermine the rest of the book.
The lack of characters is not helped by the fact that those that do exist are all over the place in terms of your sympathies. We are meant to side with Alexandra, whose troubled past makes her a driven and closed of woman. I am sympathetic to her, but she is extremely bland. We are also meant to take an instant dislike to the husband Stan who is seemingly oafish and unkind. However, for the first third of the book I could actually see where he was coming from. It takes a series of quite extraordinary moments for Hall to make us dislike the man; these are written in such a clunky manner as if Hall slotted them in later as he realized that he had not actually balanced the character dynamics correctly. Throw into the mix some side characters who have no back story and die off far too easily and you are in a bizarre feeling book.
The above is down to poor writing and a lack of coherent structure, but the biggest issue with the book is less forgivable. The character of Alexandra's father is poorly handles in my opinion. Placing a character with dementia into any book is no easy ask, as it is a problem that effects a lot of families. To add this character and then treat them like some sort of idiot savant is almost unforgivable. Moments of tenderness between father and daughter are undermined by Hall's repeat use of the father to suddenly come up with vital information. He is there as a way of pushing the plot forwards in a decidedly lazy manner.
The mixture of ingredients in 'Body Language' are all there for at least a passable slice of crime thriller hokum. The serial killer, bags full of money and a woman on a mission, should all combine for a breezy book. However, Hall gets almost everything wrong in terms of balance. The reader will find it hard to sympathise with anyone, and when they are told to dislike someone it goes to the extreme with characters moving from rationale into monsters within a paragraph. However, it is the dubious use of Alzheimer's as a Maguffin that really made me start to dislike the book. By all means have characters with complex medical issues, but at least treat them, and in turn the reader, with a little more respect.
Author: James Hall
Price: amazon uk - £0.29 (2nd hand)