Fatal Decree by H Terrell Griffin
Fatal Decree by H Terrell Griffin (Oceanview Publishing, 2013) A Matt Royal Mystery 7 is one of these books where the prose proves to be elegantly beautiful. This is not, you understand, praise for something poetic or intensely literary. Rather it’s praise for a writing style that’s almost totally transparent. This is writing at its best with as little as possible between writer and reader to prevent the smooth decanting of the story from one brain into the other. This is not to say the prose is stripped of descriptions. Indeed, there’s a very strong sense of place as we find ourselves in the Florida Keys and, with just a few clever brushstrokes, we’re immediately off and running with recognisable characters. You can’t ask for a more exciting pacing. The first contemporary body is floating in the sea on the first page and this launches us into the world of Matt Royal and Detective Jennifer Diane Duncan (with friend Jock Algren unwinding between missions riding shotgun).
So far, this is all good news but. . . yes, there’s nearly always a but. We’re dealing in slightly stereotypical characters so it’s easier to do the set-up and get the plot ball rolling. The series lead is a hot-shot attorney who decided to retire early. Conveniently for thriller purposes, he was in Special Forces and keeps fit. The potential love interest is one of these tough, no-nonsense women who have made it in the male-dominated world of the police, rising to the homicide division and establishing a good track record. With similar brevity, we can pigeonhole Jock as a hush-hush spook who does stuff for an Agency that’s accountable to the White House — ‘nuff said. When you have two very proficient men plus all their contacts at state and federal level, you know they can pull strings and are never going to be outmatched. If they should “accidentally” kill people in self-defence or otherwise, it’s likely to be swept under the carpet. It’s not that they have carte blanche. There’s simply a rebuttable presumption all their activities are righteous. Oh, and there’s also Logan Hamilton, but he doesn’t count because he was only a combat infantryman when he was younger. Except he does get to shoot people when the need arises. That’s what folks like him do.
When you start off in cliché territory, this puts a burden on you as an author to come up with a plot that’s better than average. If you fail this test, the book quickly grows generic and loses interest no matter how well written it is. Fortunately this plot asks some very interesting questions in the first act with a conventional murder investigation with a twelve-year hiatus as the problem to overcome (serial killer don’t usually stop for that length of time). In the second act, it then switches to a twin narrative track as we begin to see the other side of the plot. This is just the mechanics, showing the essence of who’s doing the planning and who’s on the ground to put the plan into action. This process lifts up the standard. Although it’s all through a glass darkly as the body count starts to rise, the complexity emerges to take a bow and, as we get into the third act, it opens out into a major investigation.
It would be fair to say there isn’t a wasted character in the telling. Everyone knows someone and these links mean there’s much greater co-ordination in the response to the crimes than might otherwise have been the case. When the President can be called on to pick up the phone and ask people politely to do something, there are no jurisdictional issues or institutional turf wars to slow things down. Things just get done. The outcomes are not always quite what those involved hoped for, but in the three-steps-forward-two-steps-back walking style, we advance steadily to the sequence of revelations at the end. And this is where the “but” gets a little more prominent. I’ve got nothing against complexity. In my own way, I often look for the layers within the onion and peel as far down as I can go. This time, however, I think there’s one revelation too many. I understand why it’s there and it does allow the relevant players to do some soul searching and consider the morality of what they do. But I think this is one layer too complicated. When we start off, it’s apparently one crazed serial killer out for some payback except that’s always hard to understand because of the time gap. The author did not have to add more. Just dealing with that would have produced a taut and economical plot. This ends up way too big to be tucked away at the end. If it was going to be dealt with at all, it should have been in the next book of the series where we readers could eliminate the impossible until all that was left was the right answer. This is a shame. I don’t think it completely spoils Fatal Decree, but it certainly reduces it in my estimation. The ending on the relationship front is also too clichéd. So the conclusion is a slightly better than average thriller using stock characters.
For a review of the next in the series, see Found.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.