Saturday, August 22, 2015

Cornwell's Totem Pole | Win Lamont Sykes

So moved by my Pickles & Scarpetta post, I had to find a means to get this pressuring need for a Cornwell read out of my system. I didn't necessarily want to re-read a Kay Scarpetta book, though. Nor did I want to continue and complete Cornwell's Andy Brazil series; I started it in the summer of 2011 and only managed to finish the first book before I put the series on hold. However, there was one more alternative available–which was to catch Cornwell's two-book series featuring her Massachusetts state investigator character, Winston Garano ("Win" or "Geronimo"). Told in the presence-tense–which is probably better suited where the series serialized as a 15-part series in The New York Times magazine–I have to say that I felt the series started kind of strong. Now before I get into how "strong" it started, let me preface that with "rocky as hell" "weird" and "exaggeratedly present." Not one of those phrases are unoriginal when it comes to Cornwell, or unfamiliar to me when it concerns her writing (trying reading the first book in her Andy Brazil series). Nonetheless, let's get into book one, At Risk, and book two The Front.

At Risk

"A Massachusetts state investigator is called home from Knoxville, Tennessee, where he is completing a course at the National Forensic Academy. His boss, the district attorney, attractive but hard-charging, is planning to run for governor, and as a showcase she's planning to use a new crime initiative called At Risk; its motto: "Any crime, any time." In particular, she's been looking for a way to employ cutting-edge DNA technology, and she thinks she's found the perfect subject in an unsolved twenty-year-old murder—in Tennessee. If her office solves the case, it ought to make them all look pretty good, right? 

Her investigator is not so sure—not sure about anything to do with this woman, really—but before he can open his mouth, a shocking piece of violence intervenes, an act that shakes up not only both their lives but also the lives of everyone around them. It's not a random event. Is it personal? Is it professional? Whatever it is, the implications are very, very bad indeed ... and they're about to get much worse."

Brevity.  It's the number one–and I mean number one–reason why I thought At Risk was an okay read.  Ballpark?  Never.  Engaging just enough?  Certainly. So yes, the brevity in all surrounding areas gave At Risk motion. Whether it's character, setting, theme (I'm not conscious whether there was one); brevity was the book's saving grace. Granted, as I stated before, the series originally operated in The New York Times magazine, through a stream of weekly story articles

Nonetheless, in contrast to some page-filler feats featured in Cornwell's Scarpetta and Brazil series, At Risk did a lot less of characters standing around over-analyzing crime scenes/circumstances throughout a number of pages. At Risk was, in fact, fast-paced. A thrilling fast pace, though? Not so much. Did Cornwell weave a number of character threads and plot points, coinciding with her usual overdrawn and poorly-plotted standards? Yes. However, the muddled trap of page-filler-material didn't tangle up the narrative and motion–which I thought made the book easy to traverse. So you're not stuck in scenes where narrative/information is messy and unloaded like a commercial truck tipped on the freeway (because of ambitiously swerving directions) and characters aren't overstaying his or her welcome inside of a scene.  

But what I really, really want to write about is the way the main characters took the stage.  Why?  Because despite everything else semi-sorta worth talking about, this is what stuck me; spilling into my displeasure of the second book, The Front.

The characters.  I found most of them either on the brink of caricature-esque, dull, or cryptically unusual with the seldom practical individual mixed in. But let's talk about the main character first, Winston Granano. Actually, let me be quite frank in stating how boring he came across. And to be extremely clear, I would freely say that his investigator partner/comrade/colleague assisting him with his investigation was far more engaging and productive.  Now I won't give all honors to said assistant, but dammit did she bring what I came to At Risk for. 

Even so, Winston is bi-racial. He's of Italian and African ancestry, and an unrestrained expression of a sex magnet. That's a winning ticket right there, as outside characters can't seem to help but prattle about his good looks.  And I could agree, I suppose.  Only it got obnoxious after the tenth time, which didn't seem to help the credibility of his character or direction.  Seriously, for a minute I questioned whether he was a efficient investigator, or an efficient investigator after his undeniable sex appeal?  Luckily, he had a grandmother strung on the idea of psychics and hoodoo to keep his character grounded.  Visits with her and her prophecies over his choices were always welcoming. 

Outside of Winston's sex appeal ticket, Cornwell gave him an interesting past to go along with his heritage.  So as the story progressed, I decided that she did a decent job of shaping him out to be a heroically diplomatic justice seeker.  However, I felt his dealings were mostly overshadowed by Cornwell's foxy ambitious district attorney character, Monique Lamont.

Think of Lamont in red Jimmy Choo with matching $16 M.A.C. lipstick. An Armani ensemble of a pencil skirt and loosely buttoned blouse and blazer. An attitude in hand, and ruthlessly crafty when it concerns gathering her goals. She, in all of her limelight-stealing glory, damn near over-road Winston's character. And considering she's his boss, she had him under her thumb from a number of angles. One of those angles were the progression of his career/studies back in Knoxville, where she sent him to the National Forensics Academy pre-At Risk.  She is, quite plainly, a desperately enterprising hot mess. And with all that overdrawn characterization and subtle glamour, Cornwell did Lamont a favor by knocking her down a host of egocentric pegs.  Naturally, Winston came to pick up the pieces. When Lamont uses her tragedy as a chess piece toward her governor-focused goals, you can do little more than notice how Winston becomes her lapdog and struggling voice of reason in the process.  But you never quite get the truth of their relationship.  Is it based on simply respect?  Attraction?  What?

Well, who needs them in the end?

In my eyes, the true hero/star of At Risk was Winston's partner back in Knoxville, Delma Sykes. A little older than Winston, and somewhat driven by her attraction toward him, she's the character who (as far as I'm concerned) did the real legwork.  See, Winston and Lamont were busy trapped in verbal scrimmages about politics and shady political moves. Meanwhile, Delma was the character Winston sought out to gather information on the cold case handed to him by Lamont. That meant Sykes was visiting and speaking with law enforcement members behind the investigation. She was shuffling through their record boxes, tracking down receipts, knocking on doors, beating bushes, and confronting liars.  She, essentially, put Winston's case together for him and Lamont. All the while, Sykes risked her career with time spent uncovering the cold case instead of meeting the demands of the National Forensics Academy.  

Sykes may seem foolish, giving up her time to assist Winston who sat on the edge of Lamont's desk the whole while.  However, I personally found myself piqued as her drive and determination displayed the engine to the book's mystery.  She was the sleuth.  The gem.  The character whom toyed with relatable stakes–even as far as confronting the killer.

So on everything I love, At Risk was her book!  And she was the reason why I even liked it.

Such an odd thing, though. And one that I found severely disappointing when I went into the second book, The Front, and found her character nowhere to be found. Which, quite frankly, is the reason why I don't care to write about The Front. That should tell you everything you need to know about this series.  And how shady Cornwell can be toward her characters.  (Yes, yes.  I say that as a joke.)

The Front

Slick move on me? I know.  However, the book is hardly memorable without Delma Sykes, or a character focused on the project (no matter how mundane and disinterest-breeding) at hand. I mean, we are talking about a crime fiction drama. Nevertheless, there were a few kooky classic Cornwell characters present (one being a woman with a prosthetic leg).  Still, outside of the return of Monique Lamont and Winston's grandmother's brighter role, nothing else really... well... changed from the first book. But seriously, The Front was probably on par with someone's outline. I honestly can't recall anything about this book that I can find worth talking about. Nevertheless, I'll give you a piece of Goodreads' synopsis just in case you can think of something:

"And in The Front, peril is what comes to them all. D.A. Lamont has a special job for Garano. As part of a new public relations campaign about the dangers of declining neighborhoods, she's sending him to Watertown to "come up with a drama," and she thinks she knows just the case that will serve. Garano is very skeptical, because he knows that Watertown is also the home base for a loose association of municipal police departments called the FRONT, set up in order that they don't have to be so dependent on the state--much to Lamont's anger. He senses a much deeper agenda here--but he has no idea just how deep it goes. In the days that follow, he'll find that Lamont's task, and the places it leads him, will resemble a house of mirrors--everywhere he turns, he's not quite sure if what he's seeing is true."

In keeping with all I've just stated, it would be interesting to watch the Lifetime movie adaptation of both books.  Other than that, I'll just let this disappointing series be.

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