The Crypt Thief by Mark Pryor
There’s considerable controversy, if you want to be dramatic about this debate, as to whether it’s harder to write a good first novel than to follow up a good first novel with a second good one. Personally, I think it a challenge to write anything good enough to publish, and the need to keep doing it is a millstone around every author’s neck. If you happen to hit the jackpot with the first publication, everyone is comparing the successive books with the first. If they find them all wanting, you become yet another one-hit-wonder of the fiction world. If you slowly improve from book to book, your loyal fans become fatalistic, praying you will never fail — sometimes whichever god people pray to hears these prayers and we have a writing career everyone can be proud of. But these authors are relatively few and far between.
So here comes The Crypt Thief by Mark Pryor (Seventh Street, 2013) the second book featuring Hugo Marston, the Head of Security at the United States Embassy in Paris. Perhaps I was in the wrong mood but, for whatever reason, I didn’t find this anywhere near as good as the first. The Bookseller is what we might call a character-driven mystery that slowly develops into a thriller where our hero resumes his friendship with Tom Green, an ex-CIA operative, and earns the respect of local French Inspector Raul Garcia. This time, we begin with a psychopath disturbed in mid-flow by a couple coming to view Jim Morrison’s grave in the famous Père Lachaise cemetery. He just can’t take the chance they might see him and disturb his carefully constructed timetable so, having had the foresight to arm himself against eventualities, he takes out his gun and shoots them. Depending on your point of view, he’s unlucky to have killed the son of a US senator who was in Paris to spend some time working in the US Embassy. Of equal interest, the girl who died beside him was in France on a fake passport. There may be a terrorist connection.
Needless to say, Daddy Senator migrates rapidly over to Paris and is red hot for unleashing every spook in Europe to nail the terrorists who have just assassinated his son. Except, as Hugo tries to point out, that scenario makes absolutely no sense. If the girl was actually a terrorist luring him to his doom, why was she shot? When the Police later realise an adjacent crypt has been disturbed and bones stolen, the terrorist connection looks even less probable. Even the most deranged terrorists do not steal the bones of a dead can-can dancer. As as for the glass scarab left in the crypt, an Egyptian connection seems more likely than Al-Qaeda. Then there’s the shooting itself. A .22 pistol was used, not exactly the weapon of choice used by terrorist hitmen and the killer had to shoot several times to kill his victims. Not even the most inept terrorist hitman, lurking in a cemetery for his prey, places shots randomly round the bodies. Unfortunately, such rationality does not appeal to the Senator who calls for the best to take charge. Improbably, this proves to be Tom Green whose alcoholism is escalating to destructive levels with cocaine also beginning to favour in his diet of substances to abuse.
So we’re off like a rocket with his sidekick suddenly unreliable and Raul Garcia attracting bullets like he’s become magnetic. There’s little or no time for real character development and the mystery element is paper thin. Two-dimensional Senator Daddy is throwing his weight around, Tom Green is barely functional, Claudia the girlfriend seems to have cooled, and Hugo gets to run around cemeteries. It’s all rather underwhelming and it’s only as we come into the final section of the book that the thriller element comes together in a more coherent form. I’m not denying the set-pieces forming the tracking down and end of the serial killer are well done. Indeed, they are very professionally put together. But these scenes come like the Fifth Cavalry charging over the hill with trumpets blazing and sabres at the ready long after the battle has been lost and the enemy long gone. I had no interest in any of the people involved and the serial killer’s motivation is, to some extent, fairly obvious from the first quarter of the book. Indeed, The Crypt Thief is about as interesting as an episode of Criminal Minds transplanted from Las Vegas showgirls to Paris can-can dancers with a little local colour thrown in to make it look better. I regret to say Mark Pryor has stumbled after a good first novel. Let’s hope he gets the act back together for the third, otherwise one-hit-wonder status beckons.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.