Deeper Than The Dead, by Tami Hoag

>> Monday, March 19, 2012

TITLE: Deeper Than The Dead
AUTHOR: Tami Hoag

PAGES: 560

SETTING: 1980s California
TYPE: Romantic suspense
SERIES: First in a trilogy set in the same town

California, 1985-Four children and young teacher Anne Navarre make a gruesome discovery: a partially buried female body, her eyes and mouth glued shut. A serial killer is at large, and the very bonds that hold their idyllic town together are about to be tested. Tasked with finding the killer, FBI investigator Vince Leone employs a new and controversial FBI technique called "profiling", which plunges him into the lives of the four children-and the young teacher whose need to uncover the truth is as intense as his own. But as new victims are found, Vince and Anne find themselves circling the same small group of local suspects, blissfully unaware that someone very near to them is a murderous psychopath...
I used to read Tami Hoag many years ago, and books like Lucky's Lady were amongst my favourites. I followed her when she moved to writing grittier, more disturbing romantic suspense, but without much joy, and ultimately stopped reading her. After all these years, I thought I'd give her another shot, and tried the first in her latest trilogy.

It's 1985, and bad things just don't happen in the quiet, prosperous town of Oak Knoll, in California. Until, that is, some schoolchildren stumble upon a corpse in the forest. The dead woman has been killed in quite an awful way, and it's the third such body in the surrounding areas. Oak Knoll clearly has itself a serial killer, and even worse, it soon becomes clear that he's already holding his next victim.

As the cops run against time to find her before she's killed, Vince Leone, a pioneer in the still-new field of profiling, offers his help. His promising career at the FBI has been stalled by taking a bullet in the head in a random mugging. He's miraculously survived, but not without some consequences, including both crippling headaches and a new attitude to life.

The latter comes to the fore when he meets Anne Navarre, the unfortunate schoolchildren's teacher. Trusted by her students, Anne might be cops' best hope of finding out the truth, and she's determined to help, especially when asked by Vince.

This just wasn't great. I was quite interested in the suspense element at the beginning. Hoag lays out the basics of her story well, and I really liked that she set it in the 80s. It had a vintage feel to it, with the cops not able to rely much on science and the whole profiling thing being quite new and thus, not easily accepted by some.

My positive feelings didn't last long. What went wrong?

1) The characterisation let the plotting down quite early. Even if the bare bones of the plot are clever and placed perfectly, you need to flesh them out with fully fleshed-out characters, who react in believable ways. Hoag didn't. Calling some of them cartoonish would be a compliment.

2) The plot kind of goes to hell as we approach the end. There are dropped plot threads, with Hoag throwing in a few red herrings, but then forgetting about them. Not to mention the open-ish ending, which annoyed me to no end

3) Even the cool idea of the setting goes a bit wrong. It ends up feeling a bit self-conscious, as if the characters were time-travellers. It was things like how they kept thinking that they couldn't know this particular thing because DNA wasn't available to them yet, even though they expected it would come soon and everything would be much easier.

4) If you're sensitive to violence in books, don't read this. What happens to the victims here is just sick and awful. I tend to be able to go "it's just a story" and not be much affected by such things, but this one is bad enough that it made me sick to my stomach.

Add to all these things related to the suspense, that the romance wasn't any better. In fact, I found it very boring and would have rather not had it in the book at all. I couldn't work up any interest at all in Anne and Vince. I actually thought when I started the book that one of the other detectives, Tony Mendez would be the hero (the long version of the blurb actually talks about him rather than Vince, that's why), and I think I would have been a little bit happier with him. Vince... I guess I liked him well enough, but I didn't find him too interesting.

MY GRADE: A C. I don't think I'll be coming back to Hoag again.


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