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by Lynn S. Hightower
Atria Books, September 2003
320 pages
ISBN: 0743463897

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In the beginning, Fortunes of the Dead is the story of private investigator Lena Padget, one of those spunky but vulnerable heroines out to fight the male-dominated justice system. Of course, her opposition to the patriarchy is somewhat compromised by her romantic relationship with police lieutenant Joel Mendez. The situation gets even trickier when the family of a missing young woman hires Lena to solve the case - even though her disappearance is the subject of an ongoing police investigation, led by Joel.

Lena realizes that taking the case is not a very smart thing to do, and she recognizes that she may not be taking it with the best motives. Lena needs to assert her independence from Joel, just as they are beginning a new life under the same roof. To Hightower’s credit, she doesn’t stack the deck in Lena’s favor. The heroine may very well have done a dumb thing, and the give and take between the couple is portrayed even-handedly. We can see how Joel and Lena have the potential to drive each other crazy, at the same time that we never doubt they are crazy about each other.

The early chapters establish a strong first-person voice (Lena’s), place us in an interesting setting (the college town of Lexington, Kentucky), and establish an intriguing mystery (young Cheryl Dunkirk’s disappearance, which may be linked to an affair with an older man, or to secrets at the ATF field office where she interned).

Then, in chapter six, with no explanation, the author whisks us to L.A., a third person narrator, and a completely new investigator, ATF agent Wilson McCoy. McCoy is tracking a serial killer, and the point of view shifts again to someone who may be the killer, before we’re back in Lena’s story, and her voice. By this time, it’s too late. The abrupt and disorienting shifts in point of view, which continue throughout the book with little rhyme or reason, destroy the intimacy that the author was beginning to establish with Lena and Joel.

There may often be a good reason to tell a mystery story in multiple points of view. A few years ago, Robert Crais did it to spectacular effect in L.A. Requiem, and Jan Burke won an Edgar for Bones, another excellent book that moved between first person investigator and third person killer sections. Since then, it seems that half the writers in America feel compelled to try this device, whether it fits the story or not. Crais and Burke navigated the challenge of keeping a well-established series character’s voice, while telling a broader story that the detective couldn’t possibly know about. Hightower, on the other hand, simply ends up seeming like she couldn’t decide who, or what, she wanted this book to be about.

The focus eventually shifts from Lena to two other characters - an abused wife alone in a mountaintop cabin, and a possibly psychopathic rodeo clown who is obsessed with the ATF’s handling of the Waco disaster. Some of the cabin scenes are scary, and Hightower throws in a few nice details about rodeo life. More often, these sections are weighed down with sentimentality; the rodeo clown’s reminiscences about her missing horse would be too hokey for one of the girl-and-her-horse stories I devoured indiscriminately throughout grade school. The many references to Waco feel out of place and underdeveloped, counting on the reader’s preexisting feelings about the incident to carry the weight, instead of telling the story herself (or inventing another one).

The ending of Fortunes comes back around to Lena and Joel, but it feels like the ending of a different story than the one we’ve read. Hightower has a good sense of place and character and, with a sharper focus on any one part of the story (and, I must say, with a better editor to notice things like unnecessary shifts in verb tense) this might have been a terrific book. Instead, it reads like a bundle of intriguing shiny bits, wrapped up in string that doesn’t quite hold it together.

Reviewed by Caroline Pruett, September 2003

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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