I have recently finished two books about which the most polite thing I can think of to say is that they were undemanding. I baulked for a while at putting this in writing because it sounds like the very definition of damning with faint praise. But if I am honest that’s not far off how I feel about these particular books, though not how I feel about all books I consider undemanding.
The first book in question is Sue Grafton’s 24th novel to feature Santa
Barbara Teresa private detective Kinsey Millhone. In the first of many ‘meh’ moments the book is called X. Not, as in the pattern followed by all 23 previous installments of the series, X is for something. Just X. There are characters whose names begin with X and lots of exes in the plot and several not-so-oblique references to the role ‘x’ plays in popular culture (such as marking the spot) but I still think the title is a bit of a cop out.
The book itself is not exactly disappointing but it’s not going to set the world alight either. There is precious little character development: series stalwarts will learn nothing new about anyone they’ve met before, while someone new to the series could would have no trouble getting up to speed with what makes Kinsey Kinsey, but that’s nothing out of the ordinary for this series. So the whole thing hinges on the plot, again as usual, which has some good elements but, as has been the case with other recent books in the series, there’s too much detail. For the second book in a row Kinsey is working on cases that don’t bring in any money as she is tricked into locating a newly released prisoner for someone, and at the same time is prompted to complete a mysterious investigation that a fellow PI was looking into before he died (in events depicted in this novel’s predecessor). There is a lot of meandering before we get to the fairly obvious resolutions in both cases and we waste a good deal more time faffing about for no good reason with the Californian drought and its impending water restrictions. Note to authors: plumbing is not interesting. And while I’m doling out advice may I add that making a 20-minute long scene revolve around the discovery of a paper clip does not for suspense make. As someone who has been reading this series for 30 odd years and is determined to finish (assuming Grafton does) I was happy enough to pass the time listening to this as I did my housework or tried to block out the loud talkers on public transport but it’s hard to recommend it beyond that.
The other book I’ve been thinking about along similar lines is BURIED by Jussi Adler-Olsen. Also known as THE MARCO EFFECT it is the fifth installment of the series featuring Copenhagen’s increasingly quirky cold-case review team, otherwise known as the basement dwellers who make up Department Q. Clocking in at 17 and a half hours of listening this book is preposterously long, especially as the only real mystery within it is whether or not a young boy will survive until the end. There is a murder but readers know long before investigators who did it and why, and the focus on whether the young Gypsy boy (who isn’t really a Gypsy) will survive lost its allure for me after the fourth near-death experience from which plucky Marco barely escapes. Another half-dozen or so such incidents followed and I nearly gave up all together when one such escapade involved Marco being rescued by frightened but warm-hearted prostitutes. One modern cliché too many? Books in which readers know more than investigators can work well but here it removed much-needed drama. I’ve realised the only reason I keep reading (or listening) to this series is that I don’t have to think much at all while doing so and I do vaguely enjoy the soap-opera nature of the personal lives of the investigative team.
While they are my preferred reading I’m not a stickler for all my crime fiction having deep meaning and/or a social conscience. I still love reading Dick Francis novels for example and no one could class them as demanding. But I think what I do look for in this type of reading is a noticeable absence of plodding and neither of these books passed that particular benchmark.
Am I being too demanding of my undemanding reading? Is it reasonable to expect a book which sets out purely to entertain to follow through on all fronts? As always, your thoughts welcome.