March 14, 2010


A Jesse Parker Mystery
by John Flanagan
400 pages, Berkley Trade

Review by SF Winser

It's odd, the many ways a book can arouse our curiosity. Great premise, excellent reviews or simple popularity among other readers. 'Storm Peak' got me because I'm a fan of Flanagan's YA 'Ranger's Apprentice' series, as previously reviewed on Booksquawk. I wanted to know how Flanagan changed as a writer when going for a different crowd in another genre. Could he write adult crime as well as he writes YA fantasy?

To be honest, I was expecting outright failure. This is not a bad attitude with which to go into a new book. It allows much room for pleasant surprises.

Starting out, Flanagan gives us a great first chapter. The main character, Jesse, kills his partner in a bust-gone-wrong. This has potential. Much angst. Yay. There are worse ways to set up a character. And then, after that promising start, we get boring tropes. The obvious set up of sexual tension between Jesse and his high-school best friend, Lee. Lee happens to be Sheriff of Steamboat Springs, Jesse's home town and now skulking-place. Add a generic serial-killer plot. And... you know. Fill in the blanks. We can see the stretched out sexual tension carried on for many books in our future. We can see Jesse's wrestling with demons. His role in the death of his partner played over and over in front of our eyes as poor, emotionally twisted Jesse comes to terms – or fails to come to terms – with this horrible set of circumstances. Hell, we can take a stab at guessing in which chapter he'll reveal his drinking problem.

And then Flanagan, about two chapters from the point of me confirming the worst of my fears, goes in new directions. He throws spanners into the jet-ski tracks. He takes tropes and does new things with them. I think I said something vaguely similar about Flanagan's approach to fantasy in my review of the 'Ranger's Apprentice' books. What Flanagan does here is very similar. He takes traditional set-ups like these and then refuses to follow the rules. The paths he does take aren't always earth-shattering redefinitions of genre or anything like that, but they are enough to keep one guessing. He finds, in the best example, a way to make resolving sexual tension a hundred times more interesting than the dragged-out, cheap hook that it can sometimes be when it's deliberately unresolved in soooooo many crime novels. Here the resolution comes, rather earlier than expected, at just the wrong time.

Flanagan pulls some neat tricks with first person perspectives as he head-hops between scenes. The secondary characters aren't always fleshed-out beyond caricature-level, but my first hint that his book wasn't going to suck was a nice little exchange where a couple of bit-part characters act concerned for another bit-part character in a totally believable, but very minor way. It was a hint that Flanagan wasn't trying to just do some cheap hack-job here. There's also some very minor sex scenes, but there's a rawness to the sexuality in the book that is both visceral and restrained at the same time. I got the feeling that Flanagan's still getting his head around sex-scenes but the effect of this isn't necessarily bad. There's an almost boyish honesty to the fantasy-aspect of them.

Flanagan has set the novel (and its sequel) in a resort ski-town. He is very good about making the cold and equipment a reality. There are plotpoints based around the mechanics of simply getting around in a snow-covered world, obsessed with skiing. He's also very good at making the work the police do feel real. The poor bastards spend lots and lots of time doing footwork for very little pay-off. Jesse's involvement in the case is because Lee, as Sheriff, also has a million other minor things she needs to do to keep her job and keep the town running. The fact that this gruntwork is often done in freezing conditions and waist-deep snow just adds to the sense of the cops' frustration.

I'm also pretty sure that Flanagan has found the perfect way to make his US ski-holidays tax-deductible.

He does over-rely on coincidence and delaying tactics in couple of places, though. A motorised ski-sled chase has far too many unlucky crashes and lucky escapes. There's a bit of 'business' with a fax-machine that means seemingly vital information is delayed for pages and pages for the very obvious reason that Flanagan is doing it deliberately to build tension and delay revelations. Again there's unlucky coincidence after unlucky coincidence.

But, you know... This is, at the very least, readable. (Oh dear! What a horrible thing to say about a book. 'Your book was extremely okay! It was very well-typed!'). But I say that because I wasn't even sure if it would be passable when I picked it up. It was more. It was a very promising and clever entry to crime-writing from an unpredictable and thoughtful writer. Even if the landings are sometimes a bit clumsy, Flanagan is a master at pulling off technical stunts over the moguls that leave me impressed and thinking about them for days.

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