Publish Date: October 10th, 2014
Format: E-book or Paperback (read by the reviewer as an E-book).
Pages: 376 pages
Synopsis: In the swelter of a New York heat wave Detective Samantha McCall and her team are thrust on to the trail of a brutal killer. Soon more bodies are descovered (sic) and the team find they are not alone in their pursuit.
A shadowy figure follows them as if it is also searching for something in the horror the killer has left behind. McCall must figure out if this wraith is friend, foe or the killer himself.
As Detective McCall moves closer to the true she soon discovers, nothing is as it seems. (Source: Amazon product description.)
Short Version: Evocative and twisty murder mystery that kept me reading, though a little let down in the technicalities of storytelling.
Longer Version: If, like me, you enjoy the sort of crime mysteries presented by TV shows like The Closer and Cold Case, this book may just make your day.
Syron-Jones clearly knows and loves this genre of crime story, and it pays off. From the first few lines he is surefooted both in the world he’s created to drop the reader in, and the direction that his story is headed.
The above is most obvious in his descriptive passages. They are vivid and detailed, instead of resorting to vague generalities, and his descriptions and explanations of various weapons and warfare techniques are given with all the confidence of an author who served in the armed forces. He paints his word-portraits with a luxurious sort of leisure, giving due attention not just to our main characters, Samantha McCall and John Steel, but to locations sometimes only seen once, and to various mooks and doomed victims who get to star in their own scene. Here he describes an early crime scene:
Bethesda Terrace was a late 1800s wonder, the two-level courtyard displaying a mix of red and white brick, beginning with the smaller forecourt on the upper level, to which on either side two large sandstone staircases came down to give entry to a weathered underpass. This made the place look as if it had once belonged to a castle or a cathedral. A magnificent fountain loomed at the other end of the fantastic courtyard. This was intended to be a place of dreams, a place for people to come and lose themselves in another time. The park was awash with police putting up crime-scene tape and barricades, the press in their droves setting up tripods and getting video cameras ready to go on air: a media circus.
Details like a character’s nervous twitches or the contents of a police whiteboard are laid out with precision and care. The characters themselves are vivid and detailed, though their dialogue is a little forced in places, with a curious lack of the natural contractions most people use in real speech (“we’re, they’re, don’t, can’t, etc.).
Which brings me to a quibble I did have with the novel: it’s very much in need of proofreading for spelling, grammar and punctuation. The formatting is not consistent throughout, making it difficult to work out whether a line is a character’s thoughts, their speech or the narration of the omniscient author. On a couple of occasions two characters speak on the same line, and the transitions between different scenes and points of view within the same chapter aren’t always clearly marked, so I had to backtrack and work out where the transition actually was. It’s because I had to backtrack (and therefore break my immersion) that I’d consider it a strike against the story, keeping in mind that I was reading this with the aim of reviewing it, rather than being a casual reader devouring it on a cruise ship. The action sequences are carefully thought out, though they can come on a little abruptly and the “gear shift” doesn’t always come across well.
Syron-Jones expertly uses dynamic point-of-view shifts to keep the tension high, and is not afraid to write from the third-person point of view of someone who is about to end up horribly dead. As such, it’s almost impossible to guess the outcome of a scene or the ultimate fate of a character in advance. Good. I hate endings I can see from five chapters away.
Syron-Jones can be and is frequently is witty, with lines like:
Davidson was suddenly taken aback by the policeman’s correction; he must think a lot about himself, thought the doctor, admiring himself in the reflection from the window.
And this is a good example of how pithy he is at his best:
He felt joy, he felt exhilaration. And then he felt something hit him on the back of the head.
The book is mainly populated with archetypes of the genre: the plain-talking, fatherly police chief, the hard-boiled, no-nonsense female detective, Those Two Guys who shoulder much of the work (and provide much of the welcome comic relief) and, of course, the Phoenix himself: John Steel, a British import to the team. He reminds me of Nick from Stephen King’s The Langoliers, but it’s a favourable comparison, as he’s a lot of fun to read. Syron-Jones keeps the tension high by constantly drawing Steel actions and motivations into question. It’s an interesting sideline plot to see him struggle to be accepted by his American colleagues, particularly McCall, even if the conclusion to that struggle is pretty much a done deal.
In fact, Syron-Jones does this kind of characterisation well: drawing the reader into an assumption about a character and then dashing that assumption to pieces. In one striking example, he sets up a character as over-confident to the point of arrogance, then puts him in a situation well outside of his comfort zone and describes him as looking like a lost child in a playground.
As the story moves toward its conclusion it picks up to an almost breakneck speed. Syron-Jones actually summarises at times, which can detract from the growing tension:
North ordered his men off the roof. As he did so McCall turned to him and screamed abuse, telling him how he couldn’t leave Steel in there on his own.
The chapters, always bite-sized, become progressively shorter as the denouement rolls inevitably in. When it does, it’s complete and satisfying, though Syron-Jones has also left a hook for a sequel and many broad hints that he hasn’t finished telling us about The Phoenix yet, and he’ll rise again in the near future.