by Steven Gore
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Note: This review is part of my Amazon Vine Voice series
The third thriller for new author Steven Gore and first starring the character he hopes to build a series around, Act of Deceit (Harper 2011) introduces Harlan Donnally, ex-star detective and current bored mountain man. His backstory is he retired from police work at the top of his game, intending to devote himself to becoming one with the earth and getting to know his wife in the rural Northern California community of Mt. Shasta.
Until his sometime buddy and ex-fellow detective (a man whose wit is as quick as his attitude is sour) convinces him to ‘consult’ on the gory beheading of a bride on her wedding day. The circumstances are heinous, the people involved disturbing, and the clues few. After much mental scrabbling, he accepts and finds a welcome diversion from his day job of hoeing and raking and planting. As he deftly pieces together what appear to be unrelated, even meaningless, clues, he uncovers a wave of murders, all centered around a school for sexually-challenged teens. The closer he gets to unraveling who did it, the stranger the case becomes, and the more personal, until it threatens to ruin his marriage, his reputation and his peace of mind.
Unlike many thrillers, this one spends a good bit of time explaining and developing Harlan Donnally’s emotional life with his difficult wife–too much if you’re a lover of the thriller’s fast-moving story construction as I am (I’ll read literary fiction sometime after college math books and Hog-Raising for Dummies). In fact, the plot bogs down often as Gore delves into Donnally’s mental and emotional struggles to resolve his wife’s disdain for pretty much everything about her husband. But, since this is the first book in the series, this sort of character development is necessary even if it’s painful. In fact, because of Gore’s facility in this area, it took no more than a few early paragraphs to hook me on Harlan Donnally, find characteristics I could relate to, care that his marriage was struggling, and marvel at his wife’s persuasive powers in convincing him to move to a mountain homestead despite his disinterest in that sort of back-to-basics lifestyle.
And that begets my only criticism of the book: I don’t believe Gore provides a solid-enough argument for why Donnally threatens his tenuous marriage for the self-absorbed narcissistic people involved in this crime. There are many points in the book where Donnally could reasonably have stopped the investigation, called it complete, yet he continues, driven by some internal demons that are alluded to but poorly defined. Because Gore does a masterful job of building the plot and interleaving pieces, that’s good enough to keep me reading.
By the time I finished the book (the first half took a few days, the last half took, oh, no time at all), I had a good understanding of the man who is Harlan Donnally, what drives him, and why he is worthy of many more stories. In fact, I give Gore a rousing round of raucous applause and I’m eager for Donnally’s next caper.
If you’re reading this, Steven Gore, would you mind sending me your first two books so I can read–er, review–them also.
Jacqui Murray is the editor of a technology curriculum for K-fifth grade and creator of two technology training books for middle school. She is the author of Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy midshipman. She is webmaster for five blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, an IMS tech expert, and a weekly contributor to Write Anything and Technology in Education. Currently, she’s working on a techno-thriller that should be ready this summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.