It's evident that story is lacking in forensic experts' debut novels

Crime Fiction

September 04, 2005|By Sarah Weinman | Sarah Weinman,Special to the Sun

REMAINS SILENT

By Michael Baden and Linda Kenney.

Alfred A. Knopf, 224 pages.

TRACE EVIDENCE

By Elizabeth Becka. Hyperion, 300 pages.

It may seem difficult to believe that the forensic-drenched mystery novel is a fairly recent phenomenon, but it only emerged as a viable sub-genre less than 20 years ago. But thanks to television shows like CSI and Cold Case Files, the public's thirst for scientific detail has only increased, with no signs of being quenched anytime soon.

The difference now is that to get attention, one needs an impressive resume to match. Move over, Patricia Cornwell (once a mere morgue assistant); world-renowned lawyers, technical specialists and pathologists are claiming your territory. For example, Linda Fairstein, once known solely for her work in the Sex Crimes Division of the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, is a regular staple of the best-seller lists.

Still, credentials only go so far, as these two debut novels by working forensic professionals show. The story's still the thing -- and if it's lacking, no amount of gory detail can compensate. One need only look at the work of Miami prosecutor-turned-much-hyped author Jilliane Hoffman to see that courtroom expertise does not correlate with literary prowess.

Michael Baden, once the chief medical examiner of New York City, is now a pathologist-for-hire around the world. His wife, Linda Kenney, is a legal analyst for various TV networks. Their collaboration has extended to the fictional realm with the publication of Remains Silent. Not surprisingly, the book's dual protagonists, lawyer Philomena Manfreda and forensic pathologist Jake Rosen, are classic examples of the "write what you know" school of thought.

These opposites first meet when Manfreda's routine cross-examination of Rosen in court goes horribly wrong. The attraction between them deepens when they team up on a complex case featuring unearthed remains of decades-old corpses, the murder of Rosen's mentor clumsily disguised as suicide, and a mysterious secret involving a long-defunct upstate New York mental hospital.

Remains Silent sticks close to Baden and Kenney's respective strengths: extensive descriptions of scientific techniques and designer handbags. It's an odd mix that shouldn't work, but the brisk pace and tight plotting often overcome the authors' inability to keep the point of view consistent within a scene. If the authors can better integrate their disparate voices and trust their storytelling, future volumes may show more promise.

Unlike Baden and Kenney, Florida-based fingerprint expert Elizabeth Becka has been writing for years, including short fiction and a stint as an online columnist. Trace Evidence may be her first novel, but she has a stronger idea of how to sustain a suspenseful story line and doesn't let the forensic detail hog the spotlight. Of course, Becka doesn't stray far from her own background to create no-nonsense Evelyn James, a woman whose ordinary days include attending crime scenes and analyzing trace evidence.

But ordinary turns less so when the body of an unkempt young woman is found drowned, her feet in chains. And when victim No. 2 turns out to be the teenage daughter of Cleveland Mayor Darryl Pierson -- Evelyn's college boyfriend -- things take an unexpectedly complicated turn. The plot twists keep on as Evelyn must handle a conniving intern who wants her job, the local underworld boss with a not-so-secret agenda, and the sinking feeling that she's putting herself -- and teenage daughter Angel -- in danger.

Becka wisely keeps the focus on moving the plot along at a fast clip, but her pacing is off. Scenes that should have had maximum emotional impact -- such as when Angel is stricken by an appendicitis attack that forces Evelyn to exchange job stresses for family ones -- lose out because their extended length makes it difficult to see how they fit into the overall picture. And perhaps Becka's unfamiliarity with her chosen setting of Cleveland is a factor; would a large metropolis really have a forensic lab with so few employees? She does gain points for putting a reasonably interesting spin on the protagonist-in-danger climax, and Trace Evidence ends on a suitably upbeat note, setting things up for a sequel.

Ultimately, what distinguishes an outstanding debut novel from the rest of the pack is a strong, individual voice with room to develop. Baden and Kenney blunt theirs because of clashing priorities, while Becka's seems to be blunted by tentativeness. All this goes to show that a glamorous background may get your foot in the publishing door, but it takes legwork and commitment to a good story to stay there.

Sarah Weinman received her master's degree in forensic science from CUNY-John Jay College. She reviews crime fiction monthly for The Sun. Visit her online at www.sarahweinman.com.

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