Friday, October 23, 2015

Review: MARY, MARY

MARY, MARY by James Patterson (Little, Brown, 2005)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

A solid instalment in Patterson's original Alex Cross series that keeps the pages whirring and is an exciting, easy read

Back when I was a teenager, I loved reading James Patterson. I'd always enjoyed crime and mystery tales. I'd started with the Hardy Boys, Sherlock Holmes, and Poirot while at primary school (grade school), then continued through intermediate (middle school) - including my first taste of Scandi-crime, the wonderful Agaton Sax adventures of Nils Olof-Franzen. At high school in the 1990s I started reading the darker tales of Patricia Cornwell and James Patterson, who were both refreshing, at their early peak.

When I picked up MARY, MARY at a book exchange in Buenos Aires in early 2008, it had been several years since I'd read a mystery starring Patterson's forensic psychologist Alex Cross, who has a knack for assisting law enforcement with their murder investigations, and going bravely into battle with some pretty evil serial killers.

So what did I find, as I dipped back into the waters of Cross and Patterson?

In short, a mix of some new and a lot of familiar. First, the new: in MARY, MARY, Alex Cross is now working for the FBI, and finds himself involved in a case in Hollywood, as he's called in to help while vacationing with his family in Disneyland. So Patterson gives us a new setting - the sunny West Coast and the glitz and grime of movieland, as opposed to Cross's more familiar Washington DC haunts. But most other things in this crime novel fall somewhere between comfortingly and tiresomely familiar. Cross continues to struggle to balance his home life with his working life, continues to clash with others involved in his cases, and while Patterson's plotlines remain suspenseful and speedy, many characters remain boilerplate or cliched.

In California with his family, Cross is interrupted by a call from the Director of the FBI. An actress was shot outside her Beverly Hills home. The case gets bigger when the Los Angeles Times receives an email describing the murder in vivid detail, and the killer, known as 'Mary Smith', is linked to another murder.

It's an interesting set-up, and Patterson does his usual fine job with pacing and suspense, setting the hook and powering through with very short chapters filled with plenty of twists and cliffhangers. The trouble is that it's all so familiar now to regular readers. It's exciting, in a surface kind of way, without too much substance or depth. It may be simply that I've graduated from Patterson now - regularly reading the likes of Michael Connelly, Val McDermid, Mark Billingham, and James Lee Burke who provide similarly exciting plots but also much more depth when it comes to character, setting, and social issues - but MARY, MARY seemed 'thin', even though it has many of the things in it that make for a good and exciting crime novel. And it may very well be one of Patterson's better offerings of late... there definitely seems a dip from his earlier days.

Or maybe it's just that sense of sameness or familiarity.

I certainly enjoyed several aspects of MARY, MARY. The Hollywood setting and filmmaker themes were pretty interesting, and Cross is a fascinating character. I like the mix between work and family, and the struggles he has balancing both, while maintaining a great love for those close to him, in the midst of his investigations dealing with some terrible people. He's an honourable and interesting hero.

Overall MARY, MARY is a decent crime novel that could be enjoyed by many - an easy, breezy 'airport thriller' that is a good diversion, without really delving too deeply into what the genre's capable of achieving.

I first read MARY, MARY while travelling in South America in 2008. This extended review is based on my notes and reviews I did elsewhere online at the time, plus further reflections. 

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