Truth Or Scare
Scared to Death
by Rachel Amphlett
Warning: There will be a spoiler here but I will
put a warning around the paragraph in question.
I probably should warn you up front that I am quite torn about this book and so my review is going to be a little ambiguous at best, I should think. On the one had I found a lot of it truly terrible, for one reason or another but, from another point of view, I found there were the occasional golden nuggets and I certainly rushed through the thing quick enough so... yeah, not 100% sure of what to make of this one but I’ll give it a go. If, however, you find yourself reading this and you happen to be the author of this novel or a huge fan of said author, please do yourself a favour and ignore this review. It’s certainly not my intention to hurt anybody and, since my insights into what makes good writing are wholly subjective and therefore questionable, you might well be better off not delving into this one.
Now, the first thing I have to say about this is that I have no idea who Rachel Amphlett is and I had never heard of this book. What happened was this... long story short. Somebody asked me what I wanted for Christmas and I mentioned a book about the use of film scores in horror movies called Scored To Death. However, due to the capacity for the fragile interface between the human brain and the giant that is Amazon.com to sometimes yield a breakdown in communication, I somehow found myself, not with a tome which analysed the use of different styles of music in genre cinema but, instead, Scared To Death... a British police procedural thriller. That being said, I’m all for reading something I’d never heard of before and my regular two mystery writers, who I ritualistically read new books from during the Christmas period - Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs - both had a year off this year with their respective lead characters for some reason so... yeah... I thought I’d give this a go anyway.
I’m still not sure if that was a mistake or not.
The book opens with two parents driving to an unknown location, racing to save their kidnapped daughter. Within a couple of pages I was quite impressed with the writer’s turn of phrase in the following passage...
“The glass and concrete superstructures of the bigger enterprises that had lined the inner sanctum of the centre of the estate lay dormant, while empty windows stared accusingly at the quiet roads that encircled them...”
I loved the idea of the windows grumpy at the roads that didn’t carry the customers to sustain the various businesses to the industrial estate and I thought I was in for a good ride. Well... yes and no. There are some good things but... well, let me get my main problems with the novel out of the way first.
The book is the first in a series of stories about Detective Kay Hunter of the UK Police and the story is, apart from the odd chapters where it splits off with other characters, told mostly through her eyes somewhat (although it is written in the third person so we at least know that anything could happen to the main protagonist, should the author desire). They must be fairly successful because there is a whole slew of these Kay Hunter novels plus various other book series by the same writer... so that, in itself, renders anything negative I might say about these things somewhat redundant anyway.
Now, I’m used to reading books in this particular genre by, as I said, Cornwell and Reichs but, those two are actually doing in real life what their characters do. They have first hand knowledge to throw in, along with whatever else research they do, of the profession of their main protagonist and this more than comes across in their central narrative choices. In Scared To Death I felt like I was reading a novel where the writer was not really telling me anything about the procedures involved in working a homicide in the UK. I didn’t feel like she had ever worked on the force, for instance and, from what I could find out about her from her own website and from her amazon bio, I think that’s pretty much correct... she doesn’t come from that background. Yeah, alright, people don’t need to have lived a specific subject in order to write great prose about it but, in this particular case, I just felt it would have helped. That being said, I’ve done stints of jury service three times in my life now (yeah, I’m old) and almost every time the police really have often seemed like they were completely asking the wrong questions, unable to get any kind of real evidence against those on trial (when the right questions asked of the right people would have been quick, easy and decisive) and even completely contradicted each other when on the witness stand. So... I dunno... maybe the police procedure in the UK really is as haphazard and make-shift as it comes across here... in which case, the writer certainly nails it.
Another problem is the structure of the story. As we go along and find out the motivation of the serial abductor/killer... the writer starts revealing other characters who were also in the mix, withholding one character’s identity until the end although... it’s not too hard to work out. The slow parcelling out of information seems like the writer is just hitting anchor points to reveal things in short bursts... which is fair enough but the problem here is that it’s done in such an obvious way. However, the biggest ‘twist’ of the book is so ludicrously handled that I immediately had to flick back and re-read to see if I missed anything earlier because I couldn’t believe how clumsily the information was revealed.
Okay... here’s the big spoiler warning...
Towards the end of the book it’s revealed that a second teenage girl who has been kidnapped while the detectives are still trying to solve the initial kidnapping/murder case is, in actual fact, the daughter of one of the detectives. Say what? Oh... right... he felt embarrassed and didn’t want to mention to any of his colleagues that he was related to one of their initial leads. That’s really realistic and great policing just there... right? I mean... seriously? This kind of 'implausible in the face of the previous part of the story reveal' barely works well in cinema, where it’s a little easier to succeed with stuff like that because you don’t follow the thoughts of the characters in the same way. In a novel... I am really surprised that anyone tried to get away with this kind of reveal in this way, to be honest. It did nothing to endure me to the writer.
End of Spoiler Warning.
Okay, one last negative thing before I concentrate on the positive.
The kidnapper/killer is a ‘bastard’. Everybody says so.
I mean literally everybody. No matter what character they are or from what walk of life they come, they seem to all have ‘a thing’ where they will mutter the word ‘bastard’ under their breath in relation to the killer. Enough already. There are other curse words available. I’ve mentioned before that a terrible thing that even some of the most revered writers do is to give all their characters a kind of inadvertent, shared language... which they no doubt share with the writer. This is not how it happens in real life people. Everyone has their own way of phrasing things and their own ways of reacting to things. Sure, like-minded people tend to gather together and react in a similar way for the most part... friends and lovers. But people thrown together at work or, in this case, people from different walks of life who have nothing to do with each other... they’re not going to sound the same. So, yeah... this book is one of those which, unfortunately, tends to have everyone expressing themselves in the same voice. It’s a bit of a bastard to be honest. Oops.
Okay, so I said a whole bunch of negative things here but let me tell you about the positive stuff...
Well, as I said at the start, the writer can turn a good phrase. She has a knack for capturing situations and boiling them down to only the bits you need to know. Now, personally, I’d prefer more descriptions about the every day little details to add a sense of realism to these kinds of situations but there’s no wrong way of doing this and Amphlett’s approach is certainly one that gets the pacing moving. Like a good pulp writer, she runs through the story at a pretty fast gallop and, I have to say, this was a quick read which had me hurtling along to the end game very quickly. I would have liked a little more detail about the background of the main character but I could tell the writer was deliberately holding back so she can reveal more details in a future novel in the series.
So, yeah, it was a quick read and I actually wouldn’t mind reading another, to be honest, just to see if she’s going to take the solution to a 'missing evidence' issue in the main character’s past life to the conclusion I expect she’s going to take it. However, with the mountainous book backlog I have at the moment, that’s unlikely to happen, in all honesty. That being said, although Scared To Death has a lot of downsides, I think regular readers of crime fiction might find this one a good thing to pack away for light summer holiday reading in between their other, favourite tomes. Not the best I’ve read, by a long chalk but, it certainly has a bizarrely addictive, un-put-down-able edge to it... that I can’t quite deny.