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Edge of Black by J T Ellison

Edge of Black by J T Ellison (Harlequin, 2012) is the second book featuring Dr Samantha Owens, another of these feisty forensic pathologists who’s quite happy to literally track down killers with the help of her current man, Xander Whitfield. Although this introduction sounds fairly disparaging — after all, we do seem to be developing quite a run of books with academically-inclined women who straddle the police procedural and thriller divide — this is actually rather good. Oh oh! I pause as I type this because, an uncountable number of moons ago, my long-suffering English teacher introduced me to the notion a critic could damn a book by offering only faint praise. It’s the grudging implication. In these days when marketing hype surrounds us, the moral for critics seems to have become either fulsome praise or complete silence. This reflects the new norm that, when asked for an opinion, we choose words representing the highest level of praise we believe justified. Should we only write half-hearted words, it implies there’s nothing better to say. Well, on the scale which starts with “unreadable rubbish” and ends with “should win an award”, this is a genuinely interesting puzzle to unravel, with a satisfying amount of charging around the landscape defending self and saving others, and not too much romance to slow things down for us old male readers who prefer thrillers to be as platonic as possible. In my vernacular that means a pretty damn fine book, but not one of the best!

J T Ellison

 

So where to start with this review? Having lost her husband and children in the first book, our heroine is settling in with a new man and starting a short-term teaching assignment when she becomes involved in the investigation of an act of terrorism. A toxin is released into the Washington Metro. Several hundred are hospitalised and three die. This immediately sets off alarm bells. Homeland Security has been caught on the hop with no advance chatter or other signs of an impending attack. Yet, by one of these coincidences much loved by thriller writers, our heroine’s new man was tipped off there was an attack coming. Oh dear! I appreciate this contrivance is necessary to set up the ending but, if you start off the journey on the wrong foot, it can take much of the enjoyment away. One of the reasons for reading puzzle books is for the reader to be a tabula rasa, i.e. to have the same level of ignorance as the investigator. We can then look over his or her shoulder as the evidence comes in and watch to see how the little grey cells process the data to arrive at the Eureka moment at the end. It’s hardly fair when the live-in lover turns out to have a backdoor route to solving a federal case. Although I concede it does force our pathologist into considering her legal and ethical position, this is scant compensation. What makes it worse is that, for this scenario to work out right, the key detective must also join in the conspiracy when he has every reason not to.

 

Fortunately, these crass contrivances do not detract from the essentially ingenious nature of the puzzle itself. If we ignore Xander’s role, Dr Sam and her detective buddy Darren Fletcher prove a good team. Working from different ends of the case, they both arrive at a good understanding of what’s actually going on, albeit seeing different aspects which fit together to make the final picture. It makes a pleasant change to have the detective credits shared so evenly. Normally, when we have one of these high-powered women as the lead character, none of the men around her get to share much of the limelight. But Fletcher is allowed to hold his head up and deliver some good results (although this is often building on Dr Sam’s work). If I could have stopped here, I would have been heralding this as one of the best books of the year. The backstory is beautifully worked out and the way some of the details of the immediate plot are resolved is outstanding. But J T Ellison is determined to write a thriller and so grafts on this pathetic subplot involving Xander. Is the writing of a high standard throughout? Yes, the prose style is excellent! As written, does the plot show good construction and maintain the pace until the end? Yes, at a technical level, everything about this book is excellent! It even obeys the unity of time constraint which is always pleasing. This makes the final result a complete tragedy. I have no problem with my heroine staggering around in remote forests being menaced by deranged killers. This is in the nature of thrillers and, if done well, I’m the first to jump up cheering and applauding. But this heroine only ends up in the expected danger because of woeful coincidences and contrivances.

 

So there you have it. By my standards, Edge of Black is a great police procedural or pathology-led investigation, but a thriller whose inner workings depend on unjustified coincidences. On the other hand, you may feel Dr Sam and Xander should be destined to have an adventure and don’t care about the fortuitous way in which she can meet his parents and save his life in the same package. If so, pick this up. This is just your kind of romantically-tinged book.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

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