Monday, February 13, 2017

Deception Island: Review

Warning: Spoilers ahead--read at your own risk. It's impossible for me to discuss plot and my dissatisfaction without letting a few cats out of the bad--though not the complete solution.

Deception Island (1990) by M. K. Lorens looked to be a promising entry in the academic mystery series starring Winston Marlowe Sherman, Shakespeare professor and, under the pseudonym Henrietta Slocum, mystery novelist known for the Golden Age era detective G. Winchester Hyde. Winston's expertise with fictional murders and mysteries make him the perfect person for friends and acquaintances to choose to confide in when they don't want to get mixed up with the police. When a fairly new member of their small town of Ainsley, an art dealer by the name of Richard Brant, is found murdered on the edge of Deception Island--in clothes that made him look like a rather upscale art critic, Winston is brought into the investigation by his friend Kate. Kate had a growing affection for Brant and had done a little work for him and is worried about who has stolen two beautiful paintings from Brant's art gallery. Winston and his friend Lieutenant Lloyd Agate begin digging into the case and find that there's more to the world of art than meets the eye.

Their investigation leads them to Frances Woodville, the reclusive owner of Deception Island. Frances had taken up residence on the island twenty-five years ago--barricading herself behind fences and cutting herself off from friends and lovers. Now, it looks like she may hold some of the pieces to the mystery surrounded Brant and the art world. Some thought the missing paintings were her work, but others thought they were phony. And their is more than phony artwork in the mix--double identities, false mustaches, false deaths, real bodies, and letters from a dead man. Winston has begun an episode in Hyde's career which involves spies--little does he know how real life will imitate art.

This book strikes me as a slightly more intense version of the 1979 Disney movie The North Avenue Irregulars--which, by the way, I loved when I saw it in the theater way back then. In the film, a new minister and a gaggle of church ladies take on organized crime in their small town and, in true Disney fashion, it provides lots of of comical, family-friendly hijinks and entertainment. Realistic is one thing it isn't--but it doesn't really matter in the Disney world and the film makes you accept the fiction and sit back and enjoy the show. 

This would be my problem with the Lorens book. It takes place in a small town in New York. And yet Lorens would ask us to believe that this little college town is simply crawling with spies in disguise who kill with impunity. Art dealers and college professors and mimes in a festival--anybody and everybody might secretly be a spy. And, not only that, but we're asked to believe that a rag-tag bunch of amateur actors and middle-aged ladies could fool these seasoned spies (and a spy master) into believing that they are a group of IRA sympathizers in the market for the plans to a top-secret weapon--with less than 24-hours to prepare for their parts. Uh-huh. The most believable part is that the spy master knows when our hero Winston cottons on to him and is ready when he crashes the "IRA" party. (But up till then he's been taking the bait--hook, line, & sinker).

If the entertainment value had been high enough, then, like the Disney movie, it just wouldn't matter. But Lorens doesn't quite reach that level of entertainment with this story. It all just seems like a little too much. Not only with the high level of spying going on, but with all of the events crammed into the story as well. The saving grace of the novel is characterization. Lorens has built a successful protagonist in Winston Sherman. I enjoyed a previous outing (Ropedancer's Fall) very much and was pleased when I found this novel and Sweet Narcissus. The supporting cast is also solid and the individual characters are distinct and well-done. ★★ and 1/2.

This counts for "Protagonist is a Writer" on the Mystery Reporter Challenge.

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