Found by H Terrell Griffin
Back in the 1960s, I recall scribbling a short story as a satirical response to Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Irwin Allen’s spin-off television series from his film of the same name. Long before Groundhog Day, it had Kowalski and Sharkey scratching their heads and wondering whether they’d ever experienced anything like a man in a rubber suit pretending to be a monster before. In other words, no matter how unsophisticated the viewers or readers, there comes a point when you have to ask what degree of continuity there should be between one episode and the next. Obviously, the basic cast of characters persists in the same setting. Whether it’s the Seaview or Florida Keys, the question is whether there should be “growth”. The alternative is to write each slice of fiction as a self-contained unit. That way, our heroic protagonist meets completely new situations in each new release and there’s never a need to relate what has gone before. So, as an apparently unique event, Perry Mason could roll into town with Della Street and Paul Drake in tow and pick up a new client charged with murder. But in Found by H Terrell Griffin (Oceanview Publishing, 2013) A Matt Royal Mystery 8, we have not merely a setting but also an entire community of people who interact in various eating and drinking establishments throughout the islands. We meet not just Matt Royal, Detective Jennifer Diane Duncan, Josh Algren and Logan Hamilton, but also all the other members of the immediate and adjacent police departments, local bartenders and general hangers-on.
So if this was pretending realism, the entire social infrastructure would vibrate with gossip and speculation about the activities of the core group. If someone ambushes any permutation or combination, the rumour-mill would swing into action remembering the last time anyone was daft enough to try maiming or shooting our heroes, exchanging the latest details, and running a book on how many bones were broken or bullets it took to kill the latest hitmen. But there’s absolutely no continuity between one episode and the next, except that Matt and JD are now an item. Ah, that’s the exception that proves the rule. The romantic entanglement is growing, but nothing in the rest of the setting or characters is allowed to change. I understand the authorial choice. The perception is that it’s better to allow people to read the books in any order. If the books are a serial with major narrative arcs continuing over several volumes, it may be more difficult for new readers to tune into who the people are and how they have reached this point in their lives. For what it’s worth, my opinion is that readers ultimately get bored with stereotypes and stop reading variations on the basic theme. Although more effort is required from the reader to get to know evolving characters, once interest has been captured, they are more likely to go back to the beginning to catch up and then want to see where the characters go next. In this case, more or less everyone just does what they did in the last volume except Matt and JD now sleep together. Ultimately, this is a recipe for boredom.
The only thing that can keep interest alive is the quality of the plots. In the last volume, I thought it started well but lost its way by incorporating one layer of complexity too many. This episode has a slightly more limited scope and is better for the restraint. We’re playing the game of history catching up with the present. This intrusion from the past comes in two layers. There are relatively ancient World War II ripples affecting a group of old men, two of whom still live on the Keys, and a friend from JD’s past who was thought dead, unexpectedly gets in touch. As is the way in these thriller cum mystery stories, there’s a link but not one that’s genuinely predictable. As you would expect, all the elements are nicely meshed together. That’s the mark of a professional author at work. Whereas in the last volume I was unhappy with the number of ramifications, I’m more ambivalent this time.
The plot edifice is powered by a major coincidence. In the real world, this would be unlikely. I’m not saying low probability should rule coincidence out in fiction. Indeed, the whole point of fiction is that it takes reality and pushes it in unexpected directions to give readers the chance to explore their own emotional reactions to unanticipated situations. But this seems on the borderline of acceptability. I’m not convinced this level of credibility bending is advancing the broader exploration of morality and its relevance to our contemporary society. Slightly changing the subject, my final caveat is that, as with the last volume, the only reason there will still be a Matt and JD to return for the next volume is that all the bad guys are dead. There’s no-one left to seek revenge. This need to exterminate all who might represent a threat is alarming and again strains credibility. It necessitates a remarkably sanguine view of the law from the police and prosecuting authorities. Our heroes give yet another set of statements describing how they were attacked but managed to hospitalise or kill the criminals. Even when the local law know one or more of our heroes has actively broken the law by illegally acquiring evidence, intimidating witnesses, or simply killing people, they look the other way. Although this vigilante spirit is no doubt very convenient when it comes to constructing plots — if in doubt, shoot first and make up excuses later — the continuing pattern of law bending actually makes a mockery of the system. Even though the core group has tacit federal government support, they should not have this degree of latitude to take down entire criminal gangs that get in their way. There should be some checks and balances somewhere in the midst of this mayhem.
Summing up, Found is more successful than Fatal Decree but I suspect the formula should begin evolving to maintain longer term interest.
For a review of the last book in the series, see Fatal Decree.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.