Thursday, October 4, 2012
Chalk Valley, by D.L. Johnstone
download from author -- thanks!
Reading this book is a first for me -- I received an email from the author, who asked if I would be interested in reading & reviewing his new novel. Normally I'm just too busy in my nonbook life, I have my reading lists pretty much established for the month, and I have a few publisher ARCs that I somehow have to weave in to the stack as time allows, so I generally turn these requests down.
Well, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised after reading this book. It's not a mystery, but more of a mix of police procedural and suspense. The bad guy is known to the readers from the beginning, and as the novel opens, he's at a mall in East Vancover, BC, where he's managed to lure a young girl to his van with the promise of a job if she'd go with him to his office to pick up some conveniently-forgotten forms. In the meantime, two Chalk Valley cops are outside of a roadside restaurant where they notice a car screaming by. Rather than go after the driver, the cops are too focused on each other, and they go their separate ways. Fast forward a month to Chalk Valley, about an hour and a half away, where a group of teens are gathered to smoke pot and drink. As they scour the woods for firewood, they first notice a "putrid" smell - following their noses, they come across a body. In the meantime, on a highway near Blind River, a reckless driver has an accident right in front of Dave Kreaver, who just happens to be a police sergeant. When Dave goes to check on the guy, he realizes that there's a second person -- a young girl who is totally out of it, whom the driver, Phil Lindsay, says is his niece. But Kreaver isn't so sure that the guy's telling the truth, especially when he runs away from the scene. Searching through the van the police now on the scene discover a bag containing rope, duct tape, metal pipe, a pry bar, handcuffs and a black pantyhose leg with two eye holes cut into it. Later, at the hospital, the girl, Denise, tells Kreaver a strange story about the man in the van, who offered her a job but had forgotten the application forms at his office. Kreaver knows that the driver, Lindsay, is a kidnapper and probably a rapist, but legal issues, the fact that Lindsay has a good job, a family and no previous record, and finally, the he-said/she-said situation all make it likely that he won't be staying with the police for any amount of time. But Kreaver is not about to let go. Back in Chalk Valley, the search for clues regarding the recently-discovered body leads to the discovery of two more bodies. With very little to go on, John McCarty knows this is going to be a tough case. As the two storylines converge, nobody is prepared for the eventual outcome of this case, which winds up taking a great personal toll on the people involved.
The author has obviously put in some research time and one of the highlights of this novel is his portrayal of conflicting police jurisdictions. McCarty's boss reluctantly calls in profilers, but is determined that when all is said and done, the case will stay the property of the Chalk Valley police department. As tips begin to come in and pile up, McCarty and his staff are buried chasing down leads, but McCarty wants to solve the case by himself, despite the task force that is formed as a joint police venture. Valuable information comes in but is ignored or given low priority, stalling the investigation even further. These ongoing segments are among the best parts of this book.
For a first novel by someone who's never even written in the crime field before, Chalk Valley is much better than what I would have expected. The story is good and for the most part, credible, although it is a bit rushed toward the end when everything up to that point has rolled out at a slower pace. Some of the characterizations could have been reined in and a bit more controlled. For example, the news reporter Jamie Straka is realistic when she's doing her job, but a bit overdone in the scenes involving her personal life. On the other hand, there are two characters who seem especially credible: Kreaver, a former RCMP officer who changed directions when his little boy died, and Phil Lindsay, the bad guy who's manipulative, in control and whose behavior progressively gets much worse as the novel progresses. Of those two, Mr. Johnstone has done the best with his portrayal of Kreaver -- a character I wouldn't mind seeing again. I also have to give the author a huge amount of credit for his ability to create a viable sense of place -- the woods in this area of British Columbia are very beautifully described and I know because I've been up there; at the same time, in some places the prose was a little overwritten. Sometimes when switching chapters after a tension-filled previous scene, he throws out a descriptive phrase or paragraph about weather, temperature, the moonlight, etc. which detracted from the earlier action and lessened the impact of what's just happened. Less would have been so much more here!
All in all, it's pretty good with a few rough edges that could easily be smoothed out as the author's writing career progresses. There is a definitely a lot of action and tension which would make thriller-oriented readers happy; there's a great villain for readers of serial-killer novels, and for police-procedural fans, there is his portrayal of the intra-agency conflicts that gives this first attempt an edge over other the work of other nonprofessional writers I've read.
Aside from all of the first-time mistakes and a few instances of overwriting, the story is a good one and I liked it. I'll look forward to seeing more of the author's work in the future.