Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Mystery Review: 'Below Zero' by C J Box

Below Zero
This was a book I picked up two years ago (must read faster...) as an Amazon daily deal, even though it was number 9 in the series. What was I thinking? Obviously, there's a whole heap of history to the characters, and much of it's relevant to this story, so it all has to be squeezed in. Fortunately, the author manages this very deftly, so for me, meeting these characters for the first time, the paragraphs of 'Six years earlier, Joe...' or whatever flowed along very nicely. I presume that long-term readers of the series would enjoy being reminded of events, too.

The plot involves a Chicago gangster, his environmentalist son and a girl who may or may not be the foster daughter of the main character, Joe Pickett. The catch is that the girl was believed to have died some years earlier. There are also numerous other threads running alongside, such as the Mad Archer (a man who injures wild animals for fun - such a nice guy), the falconer friend who's on the run, the Feds who have their own objectives and Joe's family - wife Marybeth and daughters Sheridan and Lucy. There are more twists and turns than a giant-sized pretzel, and all of it very cleverly worked out. There were moments when things fell out just a little too neatly, but by around the two thirds point, where the story really picked up speed and took off like a tornado, I was turning the pages too fast to care.

The parts that worked best for me were those involving Joe and his family. They all felt like very real people, behaving perfectly believably - like the older daughter shrieking with glee during a fast car chase instead of being frightened, the younger daughter petulant at being left behind, and the parents worried in case the daughters overheard them having sex. Nice, well-observed details of humanity.
The descriptions of the scenery were very well drawn, too, and even though I'm not familiar with this part of the world, I could visualise it (and even smell it) very clearly. It's obvious that the author has great affection for the area, and all the little oddities of the locals, because he describes them so vividly.

The villains of the piece, the gangster and his son, were less convincing to me. In particular, the son's transformation from totally controlled 'brains' to - well, something else (not wanting to give too much away, here) felt off, to me, and the fellow gangsters were a little too cliched to be plausible. The author shows us everything that happens, from all sides of the picture, so we do get to know these characters quite well, and the gangster, in particular, gains some sympathy over the course of the book, but the motive for what they did was a bit suspect. Environmentalists aren't quite that crazy! I have to give the author credit for putting forward a balanced view of the climate change issue (although his research on Bali is a bit suspect).

Ultimately, these were very small points. Despite some slow moments in the middle, and a bit too much of the villains for my taste, the great characterisation of Joe's family and a terrific climax made this a great read. Four stars.

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