Dead Simple by Peter James

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Dead Simple by Peter James

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Category: Crime
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: The first in a new detective series featuring Detective Superintendent Roy Grace will pass a few idle hours but probably not excite. If reading about someone trapped in a coffin gives you a panic attack then you might want to avoid the book.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 400 Date: January 2006
Publisher: Pan
ISBN: 0330434195

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Five young men go out on a stag night. The groom-to-be has always been a practical joker and his friends are determined to pay him back. All are the worse for drink when they bury the groom alive in a coffin and leave him, intending to return in an hour or two, but within minutes three of the young men are dead in a traffic accident and the fourth dies in hospital without regaining consciousness. Detective Superintendent Roy Grace investigates the disappearance of the groom and he's convinced that the bride-to-be and the groom's business partner know a lot more than they're telling.

I suppose stupid things do get done on stag nights, but this really was more stupid than most and not entirely believable. The lads are meant to be reasonably sensible, successful people, but they put Michael in the coffin, fasten the lid down and then put the coffin in the ground despite the fact that there's water in the hole. Then they put soil on top. I know silly things happen when there's been too much alcohol consumed but this was all apparently planned in advance and we're expected to believe that not one of the people involved in the planning muttered a thing to their wives and girlfriends. No, I'm sorry, but it just doesn't, er, hold water.

When I was given this book I was told that I would love it or hate it. I wish I'd been given a third option - that I would find it mildly entertaining, but not to the extent that I couldn't easily put it down. I guessed pretty much how it would end when I was about a third of the way through the book. I might not have had the specifics but I had the gist of it. It was predictable, formulaic.

We're told that this is the first of a series of books featuring Detective Superintendent Roy Grace. This might be why he's burdened with a wife who disappeared completely some ten years earlier. I can only assume that this will be brought into play in a later book as it had no relevance to the plot of this one, apart from giving him the opportunity to ogle a woman's breasts whilst still retaining our sympathy. Given that he was investigating a sudden disappearance more could have been made of the coincidence, but wasn't. He's also blessed with a photographic memory (enabling him to recall in detail things that he's barely seen) and an interest in the paranormal. This I found infuriating. Is it really believable that a medium can hold someone's possession and establish where they are, or that the police would use someone like this? Or is it just an easy way to get out of a difficult situation in the plot? Sometimes I found myself groaning.

Characterisation is variable. I couldn't say that I warmed to any of them or cared what happened to anyone other than the man buried in the coffin. The plot is littered with deaths, but it was rather like watching a cowboy film - I was convinced they'd get up and walk away in a minute. The fiancé was too extreme - cloyingly sweet one minute and then sickeningly evil the next. Other than the fiancé the women were generally more convincing than the men, some of whom I was having difficulty recognising even at the end of the book. Grace himself is something of a one-trick pony so far as detection goes. He watches which way people's eyes flick when they're asked a question and from this he can tell whether or not they're lying. Beyond that he tends to rely on the paranormal.

Some of the writing is very good. I found the passages about the time Michael spent in the coffin terrifying and if reading about someone trapped in a claustrophobic situation is likely to bring on a panic attack you might want to avoid the book. It did strike me that Peter James is better at writing horror than detective fiction, but I doubt that it sells quite so well. There was quite a good car chase too if you're into that sort of thing. On the other hand there is some lazy writing such as the lengthy descriptions of what's on the walls of the Sussex Police Headquarters. It added nothing to the plot and was boring reading.

It's not a bad book, you know, but neither is it a particularly good book. It doesn't even have the merit of being so bad it's good. It's quite simply a rather mediocre book which might fill in a few hours if you're stuck for something to read. It has all the hallmarks of someone jumping on the bandwagon of those people who've written a successful series of books featuring one particular detective - Colin Dexter's Morse, Ruth Rendell's Wexford, Ian Rankin's Rebus and Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen spring to mind - but this book's not a patch on any of them. Read it if you like, but don't say I didn't warn you.

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Peter James' Roy Grace Novels in Chronological Order


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