I used to read a series of books by Evan Hunter/Ed McBain called tales from the 87th Precinct. The were the first real police procedurals–the books that spawned popular shows like Law and Order, CSI, and NCIS. They are, in a word, awesome. If you’re into that kind of thing.
I am, but it’s been a while since I’ve read one of his books. Or anything in the genre, for that matter–which is why I was so pleased to hear about Lorne Oliver’s indie novel Red Island. It has everything I loved about McBain’s books–grit, infamy, crime and bad weather–but (taking place as it does on Prince Edward Island) with a distinctly Canadian flair. I’ve been waiting with baited breath to get to this book, and kicking myself every time I push it further back on my reading list. It fought hard to live up to my expectations, but…well, let’s get to the review.
Red Island is about Sgt. Reid, a disillusioned officer of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who specializes in Major Crimes. When a vicious rape/murder occurs on the quiet island–the first murder in twenty years–he’s thrown head first into a race against time to find the killer before he takes too many victims. Great premise, and certainly gripping–the way it’s set up in the opening chapter is fantastic, and promises some tense moments to come.
The second chapter is even better–written from the point of view of…the other main character. Intriguingly, this chapter is written in third person, past tense–a stark contrast from Reid’s scenes, which are first person present tense. We’ll get to that contrast in a moment, but suffice it to say that it sets the tone for the whole novel, and is quite effective in building tension.
The story is great, if violent. The violence actually gets to be a bit much at times, but it’s never out of place; in fact, the excessive brutality (shown only occasionally) is shocking enough that it makes an already tense novel all the more frightening. I often talk about the need for high stakes in a story, and Red Island doesn’t hold back. You’re left wondering how it’s going to be topped in the next chapter, all the while knowing that Oliver can (and will) deliver. No apologies are made for it, and none are needed. This is what makes police procedurals like this work so well; it’s not the glorification of violence and crime as much as the stark realism it portrays. I was always left feeling (sickeningly so) that the crimes committed in this book were all too believable, which makes the stakes not just high, but real. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that gave me a legitimately physical sense of panic–but this one sure as hell did.
But, Red Island is not without its flaws. And in this case, I mean that quite literally–this book is riddled with spelling and formatting errors. It’s an unfortunate truth of the self-publishing industry that errors like these are common, but the correction of those errors are what sets a good book apart from something stellar. It’s hard to take a book seriously when mistakes as simple as writing “creek” instead of “creak” are so prolific. There are many hanging quotation marks and missing periods. One reader, in a review, counted no less than 103 spelling and formatting errors. I don’t mean to pick on the author or the state of the book, but it really is that noticeable; and unfortunately, it lessens the impact of what is otherwise a great book.
Edit: I’m told that this book is currently in revision, with many of the editing and formatting errors corrected before it is published as a paperback. With those changes, this book goes from good to great!
There were also some issues with continuity. In one example Sgt. Reid is described as having “pushed the sweat from [his] forhead into [his] hair”–despite being described rather often as completely bald. The timeline of the book also jumps around a lot. In the beginning of the book, this is well explained and–although it’s rare that actual dates are given–it’s easy to follow. There are really two stories here, Reid’s (which take place in the present) and Ben’s (which start in the past and work their way forward). At first this is effective in setting a contrast between the two characters and their motivations, but as the timelines converge–and overlap–it gets a bit confusing. There is one chapter of Ben’s in particular that constantly jumps from the past to the present and back again; the switches are jarring, and there’s no explanation except through indicitive description buried in the paragraphs. It took me a while to realize when each snippet was happening, and the switches are so quick that it was disorienting. Granted, this could be a neat writer’s trick, mirroring the character’s state of mind–but it was so jarring that it was just confusing.
The thing that stands out most about this book is the contrast in writing style between Reid’s scenes and Ben’s. Reid is written in first person present tense, which gives a great sense of immediacy and suspense. Ben’s are written in third person past tense, which fits with the way his story is being revealed. When the two timelines are separate, this works very well, setting up a stark contrast that draws clear lines between the characters and their motivations. As the timelines converge, this effect weakens; when we start to see the different tenses changing within the same chapter, it becomes disorienting. Again, this could well be intentional, but I found that it took away from the story as I had to “reset” my approach to each POV. It felt clunky.
The lead-up to the climax was very satisfying. The third to last chapter ends on such a note that you literally can’t not turn the page. Unfortunately, the following chapter didn’t quite live up to the promise of that cliffhanger–I had thought something much more serious would happen than what did. Still, the penultimate chapter is well written and takes the story to a great place–the stakes, again, are high, and it was thrilling to read. Perhaps I was spoiled by the excellent buildup of tension through the rest of the book, but the resolution seemed a bit weak in comparison.
On a more positive note, the description in the book is wonderful. It’s delivered (in Reid’s scenes, anyway) in a rapid fire, short sentence barrage of information–exactly as you’d imagine a police officer would appraise a crime scene. This is a wonderful way to write a procedural like this: it put me right in Sgt. Reid’s boots, and made me feel like I was solving the crime along with him. It involved me on a deep level, and while the present tense style still held me back a bit (that technique tends to be less involving because it’s so transient), I had no trouble getting into the World of the book. As for that, I particularly appreciated all the quaint “Canadianisms” in this book–how often does a writer mention Tim Horton’s in fiction? The book feels very Canadian, and while I’ve never been to P.E.I., I certainly felt at home in this book.
All in all, I’m pretty divided about Red Island. I really like it, but I doubt I’ll go back to it–though that’s more a sign of the genre than anything. It takes a special case for me to want to get back into a crime story once I know how it pans out, but that’s not the writer’s fault. On the other hand, I’ll definitely look forward to other books in the series.
This is certainly a book I’d recommend. The characters, structure and narrative were all gripping, and I enjoyed this book very much–but the mistakes, poor editing, and little confusions noted above are what keep this book from becoming something truly great. As mentioned above, these are being changed.