Sgt. Major Tom Crane is a British military cop with a big problem. Soldiers are turning up dead. Their throats are slit -- and so are the jugulars of their wives and sons -- the crime scenes are a horrid bloody mess.
The first case seems like a classic double murder suicide, maybe the result of a marriage gone bad, or perhaps a soldier suffering from PTSD. But Sgt. Crane smells a rat. When a second murder suicide turns up on another garrison, Crane becomes a human bloodhound, nose bent to a trail of clues that strangely point to a local church.
If this sounds like a terrific premise for a thrilling crime novel, well it is. Author WENDY CARTMELL has hatched a first rate plot and she does a credible job of laying it all out, holding it together and keeping us guessing to the end.
However, STEPS TO HEAVEN is not a great novel; it’s merely an average or perhaps a “just ok” offering to the crime fiction genre. There are several reasons why this novel fails to be all it could be.
Sgt. Crane’s methods are procedural, clerical and plodding. The majority of the action plays out far more like a bunch of bored cops sitting around for committee meetings to read reports and compare notes. They analyze computer data and comb through various records -- and then they stay late to go over it all again.
Granted, this might be the way real police work is actually done, rather than the high-octane gun-play, car chases, knife fights and narrow escapes of movies or TV -- but this is fiction and we don’t want paperwork and reports -- we want our adrenaline to boil through every page.
Another significant drawback for me are characters that are flat. Everyone here is more or less a cliché -- the prim, proper and a-bit-too-tightly wound Sgt. Kim Weston. Her well-starched uniform crackles as much as her obsessive efficiency.
Kim Weston is set off against Staff Sergeant Billy Williams -- an easy going athletic type who feels more comfortable on a football field than in front of a computer. He’s cheerful, happy-go-lucky but sometimes does sloppy work -- which draws the evil eye from the uptight Sgt. Williams.
But the most bland of all is Tina, the wife of our viewpoint character, Sgt. Major Crane.
Crane and his wife bicker tediously over her sloppy housekeeping when they aren’t mulling over having a baby -- the discussion of which centers around projections of the family budget. Wow! They do everything but get out some spreadsheets to regale us action-hungry readers about how they might micromanage future income potentials which combine the pay of her boring job as bank teller vis-a-vis his military salary.
GAK! Poor Mrs. Crane! She might have to give up getting pedicure at the occasional spa outing, or sacrifice carefree jaunts with her gal pals if she has to stay home and wet nurse a freshly minted army brat!
It’s all pretty dull.
The author almost saves the day by providing some dramatics at the end -- but the biggest story here is a tremendous case of missed literary opportunity, and let me explain:
For me, the final actions scenes are rendered problematic because of implausibility -- and that implausibility centers around the fact that I don’t think the "Bad Guy" could have pulled off what he did in acting alone.
I’m trying hard to word this in a way without having to issue a spoiler alert by revealing too much about the ending -- but when I say this is a titanic case of missed opportunity -- I am talking about the idea that the "Bad Guy" guy should have had an accomplice -- and that accomplice should have been Mrs. Morrison!
Let me repeat: If the author would have made Mrs. Morrison an accomplice in the horrible crimes played out in this narrative, it would have saved the day for me, and would have made schlepping through the rest of this novel much more worthwhile.
But, alas, it was not to be.
Ken Korczak is a former newspaper reporter, government information officer, served as an advocate for homeless people as a VISTA Volunteer, and taught journalism at the University of North Dakota for five years. He is the author of: MINNESOTA PARANORMALA
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