Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Review: The Bone Yard, Michelle Gagnon

Mira, 2008, ISBN 978-0-7783-2539-0, 376 pages

I feel the need to start with a "how this came about" introduction.

I have a SecondLife account under the avatar name Max Batra. As one of the Second Life Librarians, I manage Mystery Manor on Info Island to promote mystery literature. I was in-world last August and received an IM inviting me to an author presentation. I couldn't make it but later went to the Athena Island Writers Club to see if there was any information about the event. I found a poster with the cover of Bone Yard advertising Michelle Gagnon's appearance. I went to Michelle's web site, read about her and her books, and decided to read Bone Yard. If you are curious how this sort of virtual event is handled, here is a transcript from Michelle's virtual appearance.

I almost didn't find the book in Barnes and Nobel. For some reason they put it in Fiction rather than Mysteries. Michelle told me that Borders does shelve it in the Crime/Thriller section.

On to the review.

The skeletal remains of five, possibly more, bodies have been found off the Appalachian Trail in the Berkshires on both sides of the border between Vermont and Massachusetts. FBI Agent Kelly Jones has her vacation canceled and is asked to form a task force and advise local law enforcement. Since there is no evidence that any bodies were transported across state lines, she doesn't have jurisdiction. She does carry the threat of Federal involvement. She brings along Dr. Howard Stuart, a forensic anthropologist from the Smithsonian.

From the locals, her task force includes Massachusetts Detective Lieutenant Bill Doyle and from Vermont, Lieutenant Monica Lauer of the State Bureau of Criminal Investigation. It's obvious that Monica and Doyle do not along - Monica needles Doyle constantly and Doyle is sullen and hostile. Kelly wonders if they can put aside their differences for the sake of the investigation. Monica, at least, accepts Kelly's role in the investigation. Doyle's opinion is that the investigation is a waste of time and manpower and would prefer to write the whole thing off to accidental hiker deaths and/or Native American burial sites. Anything but a dump site, a boneyard.

Dr. Stuart makes an observation about the remains of a recent victim that gives the task force something tangible to use to identify who he was. The investigation moves ahead with Kelly and Monica having to work around Doyle's lack of commitment.

There is no lack of books featuring serial killers available which can work for and against an author particularly a relatively new one like Gagnon. Serial killer stories continue to fascinate readers so there is a market. How does an author then make their work stand out? Really hitting the gruesome details is one way. I liked how Gagnon approached the subject. The forensic examinations and procedural appeal to me as a reader more than the killer's methods. You need enough detail establish the kind of criminal we have but not enough to make the reader feel like a voyeur. My opinion, my tastes.

The characters are interesting, nicely developed, and the reader feels a connection with Kelly and Monica. Doyle provides the friction and I liked the way Gagnon held off giving revealing motivations until well into the story. She also has the character of Dwight whose involvement adds an interesting dimension to the investigation. Sorry for sounding cryptic but I can't say much more about Dwight without giving away major plot points. He is oddly sympathetic at times.

The plot doesn't move along at thriller speed but is appropriately paced. I'm a procedural junkie and would much rather see a layered investigation.

Gagnon also handles an issue in a way that doesn't annoy me. The conflict between local law enforcement and the FBI is touched upon but not made a major focus. I asked a former homicide detective who had worked with the FBI and he said that they are a good bunch to work with and that their heavy-handed treatment of local law enforcement doesn't happen. It really grates on me when the locals refer to the FBI as the "feebies" in stories.

The author also works in a brief description of the ViCAP, the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, and the reluctance of local law enforcement to embrace it. From what I've read this is a realistic attitude. There is a lengthy form of several hundred questions to be filled out to add an incident to the database and local law enforcement agencies often don't feel that they have the time.

Bone Yard is the second of Gagnon's books to feature FBI Agent Kelly Jones. The first is The Tunnels and I like Gagnon's writing enough to add it to my "future read" list

Bone Yard
is recommended if you like serial killer stories with an emphasis on the investigation but enough gruesome detail to establish that this is one sick killer who has to be stopped.