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It's always a pleasure to read new authors. Even if the book itself doesn't live up to expectations, it's good to branch out and read someone different. So it was I approached the debut novel of Donald Harstad with considerable interest.
The book revolves around the investigation by a local sheriff's department of four murders with overtones of satanic rituals. The subsequent eleven day police investigation (hence the title) starts to go down some very dark and dangerous paths.
The first thing that strikes you about Eleven Days is the incredible sense of realism. Despite the supernatural overtones to the plot, it always feels like a genuine police investigation. In fact, this is hardly surprising since the book is based on real events witnessed by the author. Where reality stops and fiction starts is never established, but Harstad uses this "insider knowledge" to inform his writing.
Harstad was also a Deputy County Sheriff for over 25 years, so clearly knows what he is talking about and this really shines through. This is not just an author who has chatted to a few police officers for background information; this is a man who has experienced all the things he writes about. He knows the highs and lows of police work, the daily challenges and problems of conducting a murder investigation and he brings all this knowledge and experience to his writing to create highly believable situations and characters.
Sometimes this is a double edged sword: he can be a little too accurate and lapse into police jargon. His use of police radio terms, for example, is realistic, but sometimes can be difficult to pick up. One passage that sticks in the mind comes close to the start of the book when a number of different police officers are communicating via their radios. All of them are referred to by number, making it hard to work out who is talking to whom. Such conversations are also liberally littered with terms like 10-34, 10-27, 10-16 - police shorthand for specific events or incidents. Whilst this strengthens the overall sense of realism, it can be a little dense for a civilian population unfamiliar with such terms.
Plot-wise, Harstad proves a more than capable story teller. Initially, I feared I was going to struggle, as Eleven Days is quite slow to get going. Once the basic plot is set up, though, the revelations start to come thick and fast. It makes a refreshing change to read a police drama which revolves around good, old-fashioned police work. Hard work and attention to detail yields a clue; this leads to another clue which allows further progress, and so on, until the crime is solved. There is a logical chain of evidence which allows the officers to slowly build their case and no reliance on unlikely events or co-incidences of the kind favoured by many detective novels. Each new discovery is the result of hard work by the officers investigating the crime, again adding to the feeling that you are reading about a genuine police investigation.
Characters are equally strong. They are highly believable and each have their own agendas, feelings and ideas and have complex relationships with each other - some are good friends, others tolerate each other for the sake of their job. Think about your own workplace. Isn't this the reality where mini alliances and petty rivalries can make work both a good and bad place to be? Unlike many books where everyone is best friends or worst enemies, the characters of Eleven Days occupy a more realistic middle ground
Harstad does an excellent job of making the reader feel like they are a part of this team. We are privy to all the relevant information and interviews and so are given the opportunity to try and solve parts of the puzzle before they do. Again, this can be a little bit frustrating. There were a couple of times when the solutions were blindingly obvious, yet there were several pages of discussion between various characters before they arrived at the conclusion you had already formed. I guess this is a way of trying to maintain the tension, but you did sometimes feel some of the characters were too dense to be police officers!
Things do fade a little towards the end as police work gives way to a man-hunt for the chief suspect and the book descends towards a generic "hunt the killer" storyline. However, this does happen fairly late in the day and the bulk of the book concentrates on the investigation, not the final showdown. Even then, there is a strong epilogue which ties all the pieces together and shows how sometimes police, policies and politics can get in the way of each other and hamper investigations.
There is a slight sense of anti-climax since the identity of the murderer is not that difficult to figure out. There is a relatively small cast of characters, so the number of suspects is limited. Even here though the book throws plenty of red herrings your way, so even though I correctly deduced the identity of the murderer fairly quickly, there were revelations along the way which made me stop and think again.
For a debut novelist, Harstad shows a very assured style. His narrative flows along naturally and (occasional over-use of jargon aside) is always readable. He resists the temptation of many first time novelists of providing too much detail, giving the reader enough information to feel they are reading about true events and real people, without getting bogged down in adjective-laden sentences. Police procedures are described in sufficient detail to give you enough understanding of the way these things work, without becoming so obsessed with minutiae that would reduce the book to the level of a police training manual.
My initial fears that this book was going to be slow-paced and dull quickly gave way to a strong sense of curiosity in finding out how all the pieces fit together. Harstad does a great job of creating a strong storyline which (after the opening few chapters) pulls the reader in to a very real feeling world and set of events.
Certainly, it won't be to everyone's taste - the strong satanic elements and somewhat bleak tone may prove difficult for some to stomach. Similarly, if you're after an action-packed murder-mystery full of exciting thrills and set-pieces, you will be disappointed. However, thanks to its remarkable realism and strong plotting, Eleven Days offers something a little different to those identikit, serial killer books which now litter the crime fiction shelves.
Fourth Estate, 1999
© Copyright SWSt 2009