The premise of this crime novel caught my attention from a list of books offered on (the excellent website) LibraryThing. It sounded engaging and I thought that a free book (to review) would be rather pleasant. This is the third in a series following the lead detective so I was prepared to need to bit of 'filling in' but the lack of reference to personal conflicts in the blurb led to me to hope that this would work well as a standalone crime novel and that any ongoing storylines would be minimal and unobtrusive.
I assume that Adam Creed is still looking to establish himself as the back copy of my proof edition lists the ways in which the publishers are looking to promote this and (although I may be entirely wrong here - in fact, am likely to be wrong, given my lack of knowledge of the publishing trade) it seems as if they are going to a lot of effort for a third novel. Perhaps, in hindsight, this should have made me a little less enthusiastic about the book I was about to read. Surely by the third book in a series a good writer would have established a fan-base? (Let me stress, again, that I know nothing of the publishing world!) Of course, given the sheer volume of texts that are published each month, let alone each year, I can appreciate that it could be difficult for a good writer to establish themselves. Regardless, I found the concept sufficiently intriguing to look forward to reading this novel.
-- The premise --
A woman is discovered, near death, under London's streets. Shockingly, it soon transpires that she has given birth underground - but where is the baby? Gradually DI Staffe begins to uncover what appears to be a pro-life kidnapping plot to ensure that mothers considering terminations don't have them. The case becomes rather more urgent when they realise that another mother-to-be is missing, presumably held by the same group. Can they find the second woman in time?
Meanwhile, a young man is being released from prison. DI Staffe tries to support the young man and his family, but will he be able to stay out of trouble?
-- Some flaws --
I felt that this was a promising storyline. I was anticipating some discussion of moral issues alongside a gripping crime drama. However, I soon felt that the potential in the plot was unfulfilled as I found the story dull, the characters unlikeable and the editing dire. So what went wrong?
The opening pages are suitably gripping as DI Staffe looks soberly upon the dying woman and tries to imagine her fate. After a dark trip through underground tunnels, (and, of course, symbolically through the city's dark underbelly,) he remembers an earlier commitment and goes to visit the wife of a young con. Clearly, this is a Detective Who Gets Too Involved - fairly standard in crime novels. This unhelpful shift in focus is symptomatic of the writer's style. After the dramatic discovery of the woman's bloodied body, the tension drops significantly as the DI talks to the stubborn young wife. This is partly because the two incidents share a chapter, partly because the reader is keen to know more about the dying woman at this point. At least at this point the reader is able to follow events; there is a clear description of the DI's movement between the two settings and a break inbetween the paragraphs.
As the story developed a significant problem for me was the abrupt transition between settings and conversations. Regularly, Staffe will be in one place in one sentence and in another one the next. For instance, in chapter 6 Staff is in a car speaking to his boss. The phone rings and his colleague informs him that the victim has been taken into theatre. Two sentences later, Staffe appears to be outside the theatre, watching the victim being prepped for surgery. I say 'appears to be' because there is no narrative transition between what must be two separate settings. In one sentence, Staffe is clearly in the car. In the next, Creed writes that 'Kerry's face is all he can see of her as a surgeon works intently'. There is a new paragraph but no white space between the two paragraphs to signify that anything - time, setting, characters 'onstage' - has changed. These abrupt transitions occurred regularly, even frequently, throughout the book and I found them to be increasingly frustrating as the book continued. I am assuming that this is a problem with the proof copy as I cannot believe that Creed did not intend to provide the reader with visual clues that a transition had occurred. I found myself frequently rereading short sections of the text because I was confused by what was happening, only to realise that the narrative had jumped elsewhere. I felt this was very poor editing and it detracted from my enjoyment of the book because I so frequently felt confused and irritated by sudden, unsignalled jumps. I hope that this is corrected in the published version.
Another problem I experienced early on was a lack of detailed description. The opening setting is briefly evoked but after this there was a sustained lack of detail. The action moved from London to Liverpool without even beginning to evoke either place. (Obviously, the lack of description didn't help with the narrative jumps!) In fact, the first third of the novel seemed to be dominated by dialogue and felt rather insubstantial. I couldn't get a feel for the characters or the places because they seemed to barely exist. The discussion of the case was all there was. Later in the novel the balance improved, but by then I was feeling quite fed up.
Another issue was the tendency to summarise events. I found the style of the summaries extremely irritating. This is just one example:
'Staffe and Alicia Flint have discussed what to do about Anthony Bright and, for the moment, DI Flint has won the argument. Given that the information they have procured is by no means admissible, they will use his deceit against him, some rainy day soon.'
I'm not sure why I found this so offensive, but think it might be the sheer blandness of it. Summaries like this seriously reduced the dramatic tension and interrupted the flow of the story. (Once again it's worth stressing that this is a proof copy; therefore quotations may no longer be accurate.)
Interestingly, other stylistic features which should have made the story more dramatic didn't. The story is told in the present tense but it is told in such truncated sentences that it felt more rushed than dramatic.
Sometimes, if a story is poorly written, you can still enjoy it thanks to the characterisation. Unfortunately, I didn't find that with 'Pain of Death'. I felt the characters generally were unsympathetic (including the victims) and that I learned surprisingly little about DI Staffe. I think the focus on dialogue and lack of access to his thoughts meant that he seemed little more than a plot device and my only real feeling about him was that he led a typically gloomy life for your average starring detective. I certainly didn't find him engaging enough to be rooting for him to solve the case or to want to read more about him.
-- Some redeeming features --
On a more positive note, I didn't feel like I had missed out by not reading the first two novels. Clearly, there was some prior history between certain characters but I didn't find my lack of knowledge problematic in any way. Therefore I felt that this did work as a standalone novel. This also means that I imagine readers of the first two novels wouldn't be irritated by Creed repeating details from them in order to clarify matters for new readers.
I felt that the plot itself was intriguing, although it does diverge from expectations later in the novel. Although I didn't find the way it diverged particularly interesting, there was a twist and there were many questions which a (more interested) reader could want answered.
The ending is 'closed' in that all is revealed, which I always like, and the revelations occur as part of the action so there is no irritating or protracted 'explanation' section. Loose ends are suitably fixed and there are no unbelievable developments but there are plenty of new developments to keep the reader's interest. There was a rather irritating final event which I believe occurs completely cynically to ensure readers purchase the next book in the series. However, overall the ending is action packed enough to interest readers who haven't lost patience with the preceding narrative.
-- Conclusions --
Unfortunately, the poor editing, boring / unpleasant characters and irritating writing style meant that I was thoroughly irritated by the time the book lurched to a halt. I have seen other reviews of this and many readers share my feelings, particularly regarding the confusing narrative jumps. I think the storyline was a good idea but was poorly executed and I won't be reading another in the series. Normally I try to be fair at this point and consider who would like this book, but I can't really think of anyone this would suit. If you're a fan of crime writing with lone, sad detectives the case, there are far better examples you could read. If you insist on reading this, I would advise looking for it second hand as I imagine many reviewers who got a free book will be looking to pass it on.