Lacking the hoodoo

Some books are plain irritating. They promise so much, and yet, somehow, fail to deliver. This is just how I felt about R.J. Ellory's The devil and the river. It draws the reader in brilliantly with a great opening scene. A young girl's body arises from the mud of the Pearl River in Mississippi. What appears to be a recent murder in particularly peculiar circumstances becomes even stranger when it is discovered that the girl has actually been dead for 20 years, and her body has been mummified by the mud in which she was buried.

So far so good. The atmosphere is rich with Southern tension, heat and humidity, and a touch of voodoo. Tennessee Williams meets James Ellroy, Dennis Wheatley and Ian Fleming. And doesn't quite deliver.

The plotline should be brilliant, there are some great characters, not least the two veterans of two wars: Michael Webster, sent mad by the madness of the war in the Pacific, and likeable Sheriff John Gaines, who is recovering from the latter-day madness of Vietnam. And the atmosphere of the Deep South is portrayed so well that it becomes an extra brooding character in the drama.

The problem is though that it really doesn't work. In terms of the reader being able to solve the crime, yes, you get there but it's no thanks to the author laying clues across the trail. In the end the crime is solved more by luck than judgement. Characterisation can't be trusted with people changing dramatically. Sometimes this is necessary for the plot, sometimes it just doesn't make sense. I loved the opening, but closed the book wondering what the heck that was about. High on atmosphere, high on the romance of the South, but don't expect a great crime novel here.


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