Monday, November 6

The Angel of Death



by Alane Ferguson
Sleuth/Viking 2006


Is it cheating to just say "CSI for teens"? By the way, this gets pretty graphic, so don't read this review and eat at the same time. Spoiler alert: I give away the most obvious ending this book provides.

We open with Cameryn being driven by the local sheriff's deputy to a site in the hills to check out a dead dog. She's going because her father, the town coroner, isn't available and the deputy needs a second opinion before tossing the dog into the woods and writing it off as road kill. It seems there's something odd about the dead dog -- it's brain looks fried and it's eyes have exploded out of its head. Aside from that, nothing seems amiss and the unofficial Assistant Coroner of Silverton, Colorado returns home.

Home, in this case, consists of her father and her grandmother Mawmaw, a woman straight out of turn-of-the-century Irish Boston with her lilting voice, compact body and refrigerator full of boxty. Cammie's mother, it turns out, disappeared long ago but has recently been making contact with her daughter and in keeping it a secret from her father and grandmother has found cause for much brooding. The opening chapters drag as supporting characters are trotted out and relationships are cobbled into place so that the story can resume unhindered with such details as character or emotional development.

Here we are, another corpse cooked inside out and it's eyes exploded. Forensic protege wunderkind Cammie spots all the vital information but can't figure out what caused the school English teacher to meet such an unseemly demise. Cammie steels herself against the icky thought of seeing a former teacher dead, naked and baked to try and solve the mystery.

Enter Kyle the Eagle Scout. He's the one who discovered the dead English teacher, and he's also taking quite a shine to Cammie. Is he in shock? Is he just an odd duck? Why is he suddenly interested in Cammie and how might he be connected to all of this strangeness? How is Cammie going to handle the attentions of a boy and her reappearing mother, gruesome forensic science and teen hormones while keeping a lid on it all?

Skip ahead to the end... hmm, let's see... ah, yes. Well, yes, the much-too-perfect Eagle Scout pulled the trigger on an obscure microwave gun (apparently some army surplus item) that can send waves through solid walls and fry humans and animals from the inside in mere minutes. Oh, look at that, Kyle has trapped Cammie in his hideaway, monologing like a villian in a comic book, leaving Cammie bound to a chair to either die or be rescued before he escapes. And there's good old mother, returning just in time to (indirectly) save her daughter before slipping back into netherworld from which she came. And now Cammie is safe and sound and a teenaged madman is on the loose and I smell a series.

Why does this book bother me so much? First, it strikes me as highly improbable that a teenage girl is going to have as much access to forensics as this girl gets. She doesn't just get access to crime scenes, she's there naming autopsy procedures and identifying remains just as professionally as any television coroner might. And what really had me rolling my eyes so often was that the story bogs itself down in details when it should be moving along more briskly. Not just forensic details, but dead-end details in conversation and narrative that make the forward movement of the plot jerk to abrupt stops along the way.

In a mystery I want red herrings, I want them early and I want them often. What I don't want is the first witness to be the first suspect who turns out to be my prime suspect who coincidentally turns out to be the one whodunnit. You make the character an Eagle Scout and I'm already calling a bookie in Vegas to lay odds he's the guy. Seriously, two chapters after I met this Kyle guy I saw no one else emerge as a likely suspect and was certain I could skip to the end.

But I didn't. Duty called, and I soldiered the book all the way through hoping against all hope that I was wrong and missed something major early on. Nope. A game of Clue is more challenging. And the subplot of the returning mother turned a bit too deus ex machina in the end for my taste.

Despite all this I see The Angel of Death being popular among teens new to mystery stories, whose knowledge of forensics is fed by popular television programs, who might consider themselves a bit of an outcast, a bit of a goth, and are into the gore.
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