Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Skeletons in the Garden

Three Graves Full, by Jamie Mason, is the reason they invented the three star rating--though I'd give it 3 and a half if I could.  It is incredibly excellent except for the flaws.  I loved every page but had a hard time getting all the way through it.  Compelling except that it dragged.

What you've got here is a thriller. Jason Getty is a nervous little fellow with a body buried in his backyard, which jacks the nerves up a bit in and of itself.  It's not hard to keep the lawn guys away from it--unfortunately, they find another body buried in the front yard.

So now the house is swarming with cops, there are two bodies in the front yard, and Jason--who is not the confident, quick-thinking type--is trying to stay half a step ahead of the cops.  Into the mix we bring two smart detectives, Body #1's girlfriend, Body #1's husband (widower, I suppose), and the true story of how Jason of all people ended up putting a body in the ground behind the tool shed.  There's detecting, there's chasing, there's menacing, there's a con artist.  It's a thriller.

So, the good part: the writing is absolutely wonderful.  It's not so much about style or anything particularly artistic--it's straightforward great turns of phrase.  You've got clever metaphors, you've got spot-on imagery, you've got word games that turn cliches on their ear.  Literally, you can flip to any page and with one page turn max, you can find something that you want to read out loud to someone because the sentence is so great, the image is so clear, the observation is so spot on.  The language is SO good.

There just isn't quite enough story to carry it.  It's more than a short story, but the plot here is more of a novella than a full novel.  There are no twists, no real subplots, and very few revelations.  In a thriller, there needs to be some mystery, but there really isn't here--since we're following the criminal(s) as well as the cops and the victims, we know everyone's details, who did what and where the body is.  And while the chase scene contains all the "can they get away?" tension you could hope for, there's no longer, broader tension to draw you through the story.

The exception, I suppose, is the question of whether Jason will get caught.  I wanted to know the answer to that.  But I wasn't particularly invested in what the answer would be--Jason is not evil, but he is very, very pathetic, and so I didn't hold out much hope for him, or even root for him very much.  I had plenty of other people to root for, but none of them had any tension behind them.  There wasn't a romantic subplot, there was no will they-won't they, and all the sketchy pasts are outlined as back story early on. 

This also leaves you with a little less meat than you need to fill up 300 pages.  This filler is in the descriptions--the book is full of darlings, and not enough of them were bumped off in the making of the story.  Sometimes you see a good description taking up more sentences than whatever is being described is worth, just because the metaphor is so perfect.  You can't begrudge it, but it doesn't make a page turner.

So you have a really well told description of a bunch of interesting things that happen.  Which leaves me with three stars, and a suggestion that it might be worth reading just for the words, which are wonderful words. 

And I will say this: I'm absolutely and without question going to read whatever Jamie Mason writes next.

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