Written by James Patterson and David Ellis – Although he’s never been a critics’ favourite, James Patterson is a permanent fixture on the bestseller and library lending lists. Like literary sensations ranging from Charles Dickens to Stephen King, he has a popular following that will buy into a serial – in this case, a five-part, weekly release via eBook for his new standalone thriller, Murder House. The first part can be read over a couple of days’ commuting. However, on the day of publication (1 September) part one disappeared from sale for a few hours from Amazon’s Kindle store and iTunes in the UK and US, so this release doesn’t appear to have gone entirely to plan (early Amazon reviews back this up).
Patterson’s sales are buoyed by his prolific output, though in some cases his fiction factory involves collaborators. (Stephen King has recently taken a dig at this approach in a piece about prolific authors for the New York Times.) Murder House is a joint effort with David Ellis, an established thriller author in his own right. Given Patterson’s formulaic approach that’s largely devoid of any strong authorial style, he may well be suited to the serial format. Part one is almost pure plot – an awful lot happens – with little to enrich the prose, apart from a few longer descriptive passages and some passable humour.
The prologue, set in the Hamptons in 1995, is actually reminiscent of King, as Patterson (or perhaps Ellis) draws you in with a shocking opening scene. Murder House then jumps forward to the same location in 2011 and soon establishes the intrigue surrounding the main characters and the horrific history of the forbidding mansion at 7 Ocean Drive.
Hard-drinking detective Jenna Murphy has returned to the Bridgehampton area she knew as a child to revive a career that stalled when she uncovered corruption in the NYPD. A Hollywood agent and a local girl, an aspiring actress, have been found dead in the abandoned ‘murder house’ (the building already has a dark history). It’s not her case but she can’t help getting involved.
Murphy is a fiery redhead (Patterson’s cliché, not mine) whose return to the Hamptons stirs up some painful if cloudy memories. But rather than dwell on a character’s feelings, Patterson focuses on piling up the bodies – and the crimes in Murder House are pretty sadistic. Having said that, one character somehow manages to have a conversation shortly after being tortured with a hot poker and shot five times. There are also plenty of chapter cliffhangers, as well as some fairly gripping courtroom scenes – Ellis, an experienced lawyer, clearly draws on personal experience (the legal status of an “excited utterance” was a new one on me).
The authors have some fun with the culture clash between the locals and the blue bloods who ‘summer’ in their 40,000-square-foot mansions by the ocean. It seems roofer Noah Walker is evening up the score a little by having an affair with the wife of a hedge fund multi-millionaire and political fixer, which soon leads to this serial’s first bad sex scene and presumably not the last.
There’s some unnecessary exposition (characters like to explain their relationship to others a bit too obviously) in this rather contrived story, and the bonus content at the end of the Kindle edition – including a coroner’s report, psychology evaluation and news report – seems a bit pointless. Recent novels such as Dear Daughter have managed to incorporate such material into the narrative. Why can’t Patterson?
A more interesting concept, though, is the audio version of this bonus material available via Audible, though it does mean you have to purchase the audiobook serial and access the extra content with a smartphone, tablet or computer. It’s the sort of multi-media move you expect from Patterson, who’s more brand than author and promotes his novels with tongue-in-cheek movie-style trailers.
Of course, it’s ultimately the story that counts. Based on part one of this serial and its gory, Gothic-tinged plot about a sinister mansion, I’m intrigued enough to overlook the clunky prose and keep reading when the next installment arrives. The final sentence of part one will certainly have you hooked. Perhaps James Patterson is a guilty pleasure.
Part Two of Murder House is available on 7 September. The complete novel is published on 24 September.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars