Fiction Review: When the Devil Doesn’t Show by Christine Barber

2.5/5 Stars

15793141I won When the Devil Doesn’t Show in a Goodreads First-Reads Giveaway a few months ago. I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised. Barber writes a good crime novel. The dialogue was snappy and believable, the plot line was interesting and complicated enough to keep me and the characters guessing. The characters themselves are mostly well-developed and realistic. But in the end the novel fell a little flat for me, which prevented me from giving it a three or four star rating.

One thing that bothered me was actually the blurb on the back of the book (I won’t summarize it here, check it out wherever you like to creep books!). Granted this is more her publisher’s problem than Barber’s, but the description is inaccurate to the point of being misleading. It’s as if the blurb was written before the book was finished and Barber changed her mind mid-process. For example, there is no second house fire. The crimes are connected by a series of home invasions, the first of which ended in a house fire. Second, Montoya doesn’t make the connection to the laboratory on the Hill until very near the end of the book, when things are starting to wrap up. In fact, he’s not the one who makes the connection at all. Most of the book is spent following the path of an escaped convict and his possible cohorts.

Maybe this isn’t a big deal for some, but to me a crime novel about thugs conducting home invasions has a totally different feel than one about a cover-up at a nuclear testing facility run by the federal government. If I had purchased this book expecting the latter, I would have been sadly disappointed.

However, Barber does deliver on her publishers promise in another way. She paints a vivid and enticing picture of Santa Fe life and culture. Her characters are varied and interesting, from many walks of life. If she continues to use them in future novels they are the kind of characters that I would be interested in reading about as they evolve. I haven’t read the novel preceding When the Devil Doesn’t Show, which she mentions a couple of times. One certainly doesn’t have to know the first novel to follow this one, but I think I might seek it out just to fill in some blanks in the characters’ relationships.

While I enjoyed Barber’s setting and characterization, what I ultimately had an issue with was the plot. The initial plot, or what I thought to be the initial plot, had a lot of potential. But as the novel progressed, I felt Barber moved further and further from her intended story until it kind of became something else. It didn’t feel like a smooth transition. The more we find out about the characters’ motivations, the less the story makes sense until, in the end, the reader is left wondering what the hell actually happened to start the whole thing. The connections between the antagonists is pretty flimsy. We get a little glimpse into how they might be connected, but without understanding any of their motivations the ties are tenuous at best.

SPOILER: For example, what set off Martez to begin with? Competition between scientists can only be taken so far. Especially after the revelation that he tried to poison his co-worker and give her unborn children birth defects. This would achieve nothing in the way of scholarly competition had the plot worked and, in fact, would potentially work against him if the woman had miscarried as she likely would have continued working there. Doesn’t make sense. And as for his relationship with Tyler Hoffman, are we to believe that they had a relationship before Hoffman went to jail? Did Hoffman hook up with Lupe after his prison escape or before he was incarcerated? If Hoffman and Martez had no previous relationship would Martez really be willing to enlist his help to eliminate his competition at the lab, and would Hoffman have been willing to do it?  END SPOILER This is the point at which the plot kind of loses some steam. Lack of characterization of the protagonists, combined with the cliff-hanger ending, culminated in a serious anti-climax. I felt a little let down at the end of this novel.

The pacing was great, and the plot flowed well right up to the end. Really the last chapter is the only one that I felt kind of bogged down, and part of that is because I started to realize at that point that the loose ends would never be dealt with. I also felt that we saw a bit too much of the tertiary characters. They interrupted the flow of the main narrative and often didn’t add much to the plot itself. These extra snapshots would have been better used on the antagonists, to give a more well-rounded understanding of the characters and their motivations.

I will likely pick up a novel by Christine Barber again. At least to see if my issues with this book are consistent with the rest of her work . If When the Devil Doesn’t Show is indicative of her usual writing style, I wouldn’t try more than one more. But at this point, I felt her strengths outshone her weaknesses as a writer and she deserves another chance.

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