Gerry Boyle Pretty Dead Reviewed By Terry D'Auray

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Pretty Dead

Gerry Boyle

Berkeley Prime Crime/Penguin Group

US Hardcover First

ISBN: 0-425-19201-6

325 Pages; $23.95

Publication Date: December, 2003

Date Reviewed: March 12, 2004

Reviewed by: Terry D'Auray © 2004




'Pretty Dead' is the seventh Gerry Boyle novel to feature Jack McMorrow, Maine-based stringer for the New York Times, in a series that's often described as a blend of Robert Parker's Spenser novels, with the bite of John Connolly's Charlie "Bird" Parker series. Were that but so.

In 'Pretty Dead', McMorrow tags along when his long-time girlfriend, Roxanne Masterson, a social services investigator, is called to probe the suspected abuse of the daughter of one of New England's wealthy blue-blood families, Dave and Maddie Connelly. Initially leery of the Connelly mystique, both Jack and Roxanne find themselves increasingly drawn to the couple, finding them genuine, socially conscious people plagued by the full Kennedyesque media treatment; their every move chronicled, every misstep reported, every scandalous whiff explored. When one of the workers in a Connelly-funded foundation turns up murdered, McMorrow and Masterson take on the task of uncovering the truth. What follows is a story of buried pasts, betrayal and blackmail that weaves from Back Bay boardrooms to Boston's low-level thugs.

Boyle is an adept writer, handling his characters with finesse, his plot with attention to detail and his pacing with low-key perseverance, mixing in enough red herrings to provide mystery devotees a sufficiently broad array of whodunit choices. The violence, essential to the story, is relatively subdued and minimally graphic, decaf rather than fully leaded. People get shot, beaten and generally kicked around, but the action is written in a once-over-lightly mode that lets the reader's stomach remain right side up. Boyle's writing style is unusually graceful for hardboiled fiction. He excels in his descriptions of the Maine setting, creating evocative and authentic images of both its people and its landscape.

Believability is one of the essential building blocks of a successful slice-of-life-with-murder story of this type. Some mystery readers are moderately forgiving of lapses in realism, overlooking a coincidence or two in return for a well written, otherwise engaging story. But many more mystery readers are true fanatics about credibility, reacting with near ballistic outrage when character's motivations don't ring true (the naive sweet thing, in the house alone, creeps upstairs to check out the mysterious noise), when coincidence propels the plot (the detective happens to spot the long-sought witness walking out of a building) or when reality goes astray (the protagonist, shot in the kneecap, gives chase to the assailant). Mystery writers are rightfully criticized for this kind of thing as evidence of sloppiness that just doesn't cut it in a well-conceived mystery story.

Boyle most certainly faces a credibility gap in 'Pretty Dead' and it does damage to his otherwise well-written narrative. Believability is stretched from the outset, when Roxanne investigates a highly sensitive allegation in a politically super-charged climate, and brings Jack along for company - Jack who just happens to be a writer for the NY Times! Despite their conversation about confidentiality, about how Jack will "sit in the car" and not intrude on the investigation, he of course doesn't (sit in the car) and does (intrude), for if he didn't, there would be no story. The story concludes with another credibility defying piece of action, when Jack, Roxanne and various other good guys confront the bad guys in the woods outside the Connelly mansion. Jack sends Roxanne, now pregnant, to guard the road, knowing full well that the baddest bad guy, the one who handles all the serious killing, is out there roaming the woods with gun in hand. Not only do the reader's eyes roll, but Boyle has now sacrificed any suspense or tension by setting up a wholly predictable denouement. (Memo to Roxanne - remember this event should you ever consider marrying this guy!)

Boyle's 'Pretty Dead' is palatable, but ultimately unconvincing; the McMorrow series could use a little Parker punch or Connolly bite.