Book review: Serpentine by Jonathan Kellerman

Title: Serpentine

Author: Jonathan Kellerman

Genre: Thriller

Publisher: Random House

Publication date: 4th February 2021

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Summary:

LAPD homicide lieutenant Milo Sturgis is a master detective. He has a near-perfect solve rate and he’s written his own rulebook. Some of those successes–the toughest ones – have involved his best friend, the brilliant psychologist Alex Delaware. But Milo doesn’t call Alex in unless cases are “different.”

This murder warrants an immediate call: Milo’s independence has been compromised as never before, as the department pressures him to cater to the demands of a mogul. A hard-to-fathom, mega-rich young woman obsessed with reopening the coldest of cases: the decades-old death of the mother she never knew.

The facts describe a likely loser case: a mysterious woman found with a bullet in her head in a torched Cadillac that has overturned on infamously treacherous Mulholland Drive. No physical evidence, no witnesses, no apparent motive. And a slew of detectives have already worked the job and failed. But as Delaware and Sturgis begin digging, the mist begins to lift. Too many coincidences. Facts turn out to be anything but. And as they soon discover, very real threats are lurking in the present.

My review:

Detective Milos Sturgis and psychologist Alex Delaware work together on a complex case that leads them to a set of bizarre locations and suspicious characters. The cold case soon turns interesting as the team connect the seemingly unbelievable coincidences to discover that most characters are not who they seem.

Jonathan Kellerman features his most prominent writing traits in Serpentine including his excellent ability to paint a picture of a crime scene and lure the reader into a sense of false security as the crime develops into a race against time. This trait is also one of the key highlights in Serpentine and encouraged me to keep reading despite several slower paced parts in the middle.

The two main characters, Milos Sturgis and Alex Delaware, worked well together and I enjoyed the insightful feedback from both the detective’s view and psychologist’s experience. Whenever one missed an important detail the other would point it out and vice versa and their teamwork was extremely important towards the end when surprising relationships between the characters emerged.

I struggled with the monotonous and matter-of-fact writing style which did not veer far from direct speech and few dispersed descriptions. I realise that this is the preferred style of the author however it didn’t suit many of the adrenaline filled scenes and often read too much like a movie or play script.

Serpentine boasts a set of delightful characters and an impressive plot. It kept my interest until the very end with a surprising reveal and promise for more action in the next book in the series.

Serpentine is out to buy today!

Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for providing a free advanced reader’s copy in exchange for my honest review.

The importance of pace in thrillers

Studious Saturday

After struggling through a strange period during the beginning of the lockdown where I was unable to concentrate on reading for more than 10 minutes, I finally managed to finish several thrillers which were stuck on my TBR list for a while. They each had positive and negative features but a common factor which helped me determine the rating was the use of pace.

I have discussed the importance of beginnings and endings before but had never truly considered pace as a key element of the genre until now. Exceptional additions to the genre usually involve a solid beginning, a compelling plot and a set of charismatic characters. However, after carefully analysing why I didn’t fully enjoy some of the more recent thrillers that I read, I realised that the common trait which ultimately prompted my decision to give an average rating was pace.

Does slow pace make the reader lose interest?

I have noticed that focusing on setting and character development is often the main goal of many authors, particularly in the mystery & thriller genre. Many authors prefer to flesh out their main characters while introducing some other minor characters and others concentrate on creating an atmospheric setting. This works well in many thrillers, especially when the writing is crisp and articulate. However, it sometimes hinders the pace as a huge chunk of the beginning and middle is absorbed by character growth and descriptions and little movement. Although I appreciate a slower pace in historical fiction and contemporary fiction, I often find that setting the pace too slow in thrillers loses emphasis on the suspense and doesn’t engage the reader fully.

Does pace always need to be dynamic?

Pace will always have peaks and valleys in books and the thriller genre is no exception. Keeping the reader fully invested will involve a combination of both highs and lows in pace – lots of action and edge of your seat moments mixed in with reflection of the characters’ decisions. When executed well this combination has the potential to create an unforgettable experience for the reader. It works particularly well in spy and legal thrillers in which the author builds up the tension right before a huge revelation or when delivering a twist. However, in psychological thrillers a constantly changing pace sometimes provokes a sense of unease in the reader as it doesn’t reflect the nature of the genre as the focus is naturally on the characters rather than the pace.

Is fast pace the solution to a gripping thriller?

Many thrillers have a constantly set fast pace with lots of action, the occasional red herring and many twists. These are usually my preferred choice of reading although I don’t believe that fast pace is the answer to a gripping thriller. While it may keep the reader invested for longer, if the characters or plot aren’t interesting enough a fast pace will only create confusion and still make the book fall short of the reader’s expectations. A steady pace with a few unexpected twists coupled with an engaging plot and characters often has a bigger impact than a book with a fast pace but little space for the characters’ backstory.

Pace is an extremely important element in thrillers and one that I believe all authors should consider. Changes in pace are often based on the author’s intentions of how and when twists are delivered and the suspects revealed so it is key that the pace echoes these decisions. Pace is a very powerful tool of building tension and suspense and when used well can create memorable moments that satisfy the reader and have a positive impact on their final verdict of the book. However, authors should not rely only on pace as character growth and plot are equally influential and should not be forgotten.

Question time

Do you believe that pace is an important aspect in thrillers?

Book review: The Last Thing She Told Me by Linda Green


Book Cover

Title: The Last Thing She Told Me

Author: Linda Green

Genre: Mystery/Thriller

Publisher: Quercus 

Publication date: 7th March 2019

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Summary:

“Even the deepest buried secrets can find their way to the surface… Moments before she dies, Nicola’s grandmother Betty whispers to her that there are babies at the bottom of the garden. Nicola’s mother claims she was talking nonsense. However, when Nicola’s daughter finds a bone while playing in Betty’s garden, it’s clear that something sinister has taken place. But will unearthing painful family secrets end up tearing Nicola’s family apart?

My review:

I stumbled upon this book on Netgalley and it immediately piqued my interest. After reading other readers’ reviews I was convinced that this would be a brilliant thriller and was excited to start reading it. However, I originally could not connect with any of the characters and was not immediately drawn to the plot either. The pace was slow at first and the interlocking past and present story lines did not seem related. It was Betty’s last words “There are babies at the bottom of the garden” that really motivated me to keep reading.

At around the halfway point into the book the plot started to thicken and new characters were introduced and I found that I suddenly couldn’t stop reading. It is also around this point where we start to understand how the letters and present day story line are linked and the appalling secrets are discovered. The author handles the rainbow of emotions extremely well and provides an excellent insight into each character’s feelings. However, I think that the challenge of addressing these issues over several generations was too demanding even though the impact was much bigger.

Overall, this poignant story was well developed despite the lagging first few chapters. I would recommend it to anyone interested in reading a family drama as I don’t agree that this book should be filed under the Thriller category.

The Last Thing She Told Me is out to buy tomorrow!

Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for providing a free advanced reader’s copy in exchange for my honest review.

Studious Saturday: What makes a Thriller truly thrilling

studious saturdays

Shortly after finishing From the Shadows by Neil White, I reflected on thrillers and the various techniques authors use to provoke a wide range of emotions on their readers. I have read some truly wonderful Thrillers this year and, after comparing the aspects that make them stand out to the rest, I decided to summarise my thoughts in this week’s Studious Saturday post.

A bold start

The first few chapters are without a doubt the most vital in engaging the reader and introducing the story line and main characters. In particular, thrillers need a strong start to excite the reader and encourage them to keep reading. Without this technique, the story already feels sluggish and the writing usually falls flat before the main events unfold.

Multi-layered characters

This often applies to all genres because we need to be able to relate to the characters, or at least find them likeable. However, it’s crucial that characters are complex and mysterious in Thrillers, especially murder mysteries, because often the story line rapidly changes to suggest that one character may be the culprit until another piece of evidence is discovered and we find out that another character could be the murderer. I also believe that it’s possible, although difficult, to build a successful character-driven thriller while not focusing as much on the plot, although I know that others may disagree with me here.

An unexpected plot twist

Perhaps the most “thrilling” aspect is a huge plot twist that we didn’t see coming. Without this, the story may feel incomplete and not as gripping. Many Thrillers build up in suspense and and tension slowly until the big reveal whereas others shock with an abrupt and unpredictable twist. Both techniques are incredibly powerful when used correctly and both have their place as the author may decide which to use depending on how they plan on developing the plot.

Pace

It is often difficult for many authors to achieve a good level of rhythm and it usually depends on many other factors – whether they are striving for a plot-driven rather than a character-driven book and if they wish to keep the reader guessing until the final chapter or rather focus on the events surrounding the mystery in a more reflective manner. Personally, I am a huge fan of fast-paced Thrillers as I am usually more eager to carry on reading until finishing the book in a few sittings. However, as pacing depends on other factors, I am open to reading slower-paced Thrillers or ones with a variety in rhythm if well executed.

An appropriate ending

The final chapters are essential for a hard-hitting and noteworthy Thriller and often this is the deciding factor for many readers on whether they found the book successful or not. I have read some brilliant Thrillers that have convinced me to read until the end to only find a disappointing and odd ending that doesn’t correspond to the rest of the story line and doesn’t provide a satisfying conclusion. An excellent Thriller requires an appropriate conclusion to tie up all lose ends and explain the mystery in a convincing manner. Of course, this would depend if the book is a standalone or a part of a series, in which case ending on a cliffhanger could work, but either way the author needs to find the right balance between a gripping final few chapters and the right pace to conclude the story.

Question time

What do you believe are the factors that make a thriller truly thrilling? Do you agree with my suggestions and would you add any other points?