Category Archives: murder mystery

“The Trail of Money” by Peter David Shapiro has a complex plot but which strays frequently off trail to get mired in thickets of niggling detail

Review by KEN KORCZAK

Imagine the hero of a thriller novel who is some white collar business consultant. His job is to pore over balance sheets, crunch numbers, examine reports, look for accounting errors and scrutinize the legal aspects of corporate transactions. Sound exciting?

Okay, not really — but wait a minute – what if our handsome consultant gets caught up in a nefarious game of international intrigue? There’s money laundering, mobsters, corrupt government officials, hired thugs, exotic-erotic women, murderers, evil millionaires – all these elements are seething in the urban-money-and-poverty pit of Hong Kong.

Well, those are the components of THE TRAIL OF MONEY by PETER DAVID SHAPIRO – and although he has all the ingredients for a compelling pot boiler – this novel feels more like a bottle of carbonated water with a loose cap. All the potential pop of a great plot fizzles away.

And here’s why:

As the terrific writer Ben Bova advised, “All fiction is based on character.” The characters in this novel simply are not fleshed out enough. Yes, we learn that Dr. Harry West has suffered the death of his daughter and a resulting divorce. This should add depth and dimension to the character, and forge empathy for him among readers, right?

Well, giving the viewpoint character a dead wife or child has become so common, especially among new writers, it now has entered the realm “plot gimmick” if not an outright cliché. Just in the past 50 books I have read, the following authors supplied their hero with a deceased spouse and/or child: John Connolly (dead wife and child), Stephen Ames Berry (dead wife), Paul Antony Jones (killed own child in accident), Michael R. Hicks (dead wife), Richard Brown (dead wife), James LePore (hero has a dead wife; his new love interest has a dead husband), Nathan Lee Christensen (dead wife) – and those are the one I can think of just off the top of my head – so easily more than 10% of the fast 50 books I have read.

Granted, I read more than 100 books per year, and this new dead wife/child trend may be invisible to the casual reader – but, well — I’ll let my reader decide if I am being fair in this regard, or if I am merely finding picayune fault.

But beyond that, what does our hero, Harry West, look like? I think he looks like a 30ish Harrison Ford, but you might disagree – you might think he looks like Vince Vaughn. Maybe he looks like your friend Charlie from college. We don’t know because he is never described. Apparently, he a thirty-something white guy (I think) with a Ph.D.

By chance, Mr. West meets his future love interest on a jet ride over to Hong Kong. By fantastic coincidence, she is seated right next to him. She just happens to be a journalist who just happens to be, by more coincidence, reporting on the very project Mr. West is flying to Hong Kong to examine. Here is how we are introduced to her:

“She appeared to be in her mid-thirties, slim, good-looking with red hair cut short gamine style.

As it happens, the novel I read just prior to this one was an obscure 1960 science fiction pulp job, but it also featured a sexy redhead as a primary character. Here is how that author, Richard Wilson, introduced us to a woman his hero meets on a train:

“The girl’s hair was a subtle red, but false. When Don had entered the club car he’d seen her hatless head from above and noticed that the hair along the part was dark. The cheeks were full and untouched by make-up. There were lines at the corners of her mouth which indicated a tendency to arrange her expression into one of disapproval. The lips were full, like the cheeks, but it was obvious that the scarlet lipstick had contrived a mouth a trifle bigger that the one nature had given her.” (From: AND THEN THE TOWN TOOK OFF, Ace Double, 1960)

PETER DAVID SHAPIRO

And the latter is from a hacked out piece of pulp fiction! I ask the reader, which character comes alive more for you? Which is more vivid, more interesting? And, hey – the second description is only a few extra sentences! In a novel-length manuscript, that’s perfectly reasonable, even if the author is trying to write extremely tight.

Most of the other characters are as bland – they’re mannequins dressed in suits with a lot of blanks for readers to fill in – and not just because we don’t get treated to physical description – it’s because they don’t do or say much that clearly makes them unique, quirky individuals.

But a far greater problem for me is what I am going to call a certain rather odd GPS Effect – that is, the author is constantly giving us the niggling details of streets, plazas, locations, taxi routes, train connections, boat harbor routes, highways and walkways.

Even in a flashback describing a romantic adventure between two carefree post-college hitchers – the GPS device is constantly bip-bip-bipping in the background, as in:

“We stood together silently in front of a poster for Madame Tussauds Wax Museum on Marylebone Road next to the entrance to the Baker Street Underground station, where Mei-Ling would catch the Bakerloo Line to Piccadilly, and then transfer onto the Piccadilly Line to Heathrow Airport.

Nice to know how she’ll be getting to the airport – I guess.

Furthermore, the author again and again injects the narrative with repetitive details which rob his story of tension. For example, sometime a character will summarize what the cops just told him for another character – even though we the readers already know it all – and we have to hear it all again.

Even during a passionate love scene, we simply must pause for a detailed description of the bathroom fixtures:

“The (hotel) had outfitted the shower with both the overhead sprayer and a second nozzle on a flexible stainless steel hose coiled on a hook just under the faucets. Guests could select either nozzle or both at the same time by swiveling a lever. The outer edge of the tub, opposite the wall, was two feet high and wide enough to accommodate indented seats that were carved into it. A light nylon shower curtain could be pulled along the outer edge to protect the rest of the bathroom from the spray.”

The action of wet and steamy love scene is interrupted right in the middle – I’m not kidding – so that we can get this description of the tub and shower stall.

I have other quibbles as well. I hate it when writers reference pop culture in their narratives. (On the plane Dr. West watches “The Wedding Crashers,” and in his hotel, he watches a Bruce Willis movie). This has the effect of yanking me right out of a fictional world back into our own mundane world of trash culture. (I read literature to escape from cultural trash, not to be reminded of it).

Despite all, the Trail of Money has an excellent, well-conceived plot. Let me tell you, it takes an enormous amount of writing skill to hatch a scenario such as offered here – I give the author colossal credit for being a brilliant strategic thinker in terms of crafting an air-tight scenario that never contradicts itself.

I say completely without guile, that I believe Peter David Shapiro to be a writer of fierce talent with a fine literary mind – I absolutely will be looking forward to and buying his future books, and I bet each one will be better than the last.

Ken Korczak is the author of: BIRD BRAIN GENIUS

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The Hangman’s Daughter: Part Historical Fiction, Part Horrer, Part Mystery Thriller, All Good

Review By KEN KORCZAK

THE HANGMAN’S DAUGHTER is an English translation of a German novel that achieved best seller status in Europe and began doing well in the U.S. market after being offered as a Kindle selection on Amazon.com. The translation is well-handled by LEE CHADEAYNE, a member of the American Literary Translators Association. Its original title is Die Henkerstochter.

Author OLIVER PÖTZSCH creates a vibrant fictional world set in 1659 Bavaria. The action takes place in the tiny village of Schongau, which is a real location in Germany near the Alps and the Lech River. In fact, Pötzsch was inspired to write this novel after an intensive study of his family’s genealogy, which led him to discover that he is actually descended from a long line of professional executioners, or hangmen.

The title is something of a misnomer because the hangman’s daughter herself plays only a supporting role. The hangman, Jakob Kuisl, is our main protagonist, and he’s a wonderful character indeed – that’s because he is complicated mixture of stunning contradictions. When ordered to, he will hack off the head a convicted man, no matter how flimsy the evidence, or torture women before he burns them at the stake based on ridiculously trumped-up charges of witchcraft.

On the other hand, Kuisl is highly intelligent and in his chest beats the heart of a humanitarian. He is smarter than just about everybody else in town, and he’s even a far superior healer and physician than the two local “quacks.” In short, he is a Hangman with a Heart. (Hey, maybe that would be a better title)?

Anyway, the plot centers on an accusation of witchcraft against a kindly midwife – who just so happened to have delivered the Hangman’s kids – and who is also known for her kindness toward orphaned children. The charges are prompted by the brutal murders of several local children, whose lifeless bodies are discovered to have “witch signs” tattooed on their backs.

The plot quickly thickens, however, as the Hangman suspects the midwife is innocent, is certainly no witch, and he begins snooping around for the truth. With the aid of a young doctor, Simon Fronwieser, the pair proceed like a post-Medieval version of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. They began to uncover a tangled conspiracy that reaches to the very center of the Schongau’s wealthy burgomaster and aldermen elites.

For me the novel works on almost every level. Superior character creation, good enough plotting, excellent description of scene, setting and background – although I will say there are stretches of tedium with too much detail inserted as the author does his best to keep us turning pages while dangling mysteries just in front of our noses, but always out of reach – until the end. There was a tad too much of this unnecessary teasing for my likes, but others might disagree.

The sensitive reader should be warned that there’s plenty of violence and bloodshed, gruesome scenes of torture and killings – including the violent deaths of sweet children – and other descriptions of sundry bloody human processes – not to mention and unflinching look at the all of the basic feces, urine and filth (human and animal) that the people of this time period lived in close proximity to before the advent of modern plumbing and sewer systems.

The Hangman’s Daughter is ultimately entertaining, loaded with dark humor, and the author has a natural sense of irony, which is generated by showing us the stark differences is the societal norms of 1649 Germany as compared to what we think of as rational and sensible today.

Looking back from the vantage point of our lofty perch of 2012, the people of the mid-17th Century seem a bunch of hopelessly violent, greedy, superstitious lunatics – but we have to remember – their world was “normal” and “rational” from their point of view. Before we judge them too harshly, imagine what the people of 400 years into our future will think of our “rational” society of today.

Ken Korczak is the author of: THE FAIRY REDEMPTION OF JUBAL CRANCH