Pocket, 2001, 420 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-02837-5
I have made no secret, in past reviews of Kathy Reichs’ novels, of my decidedly mixed feelings about her literary output. While I’m more than happy enough to read an American writer setting stories in my quasi-native Quebec, I was rather less enthusiastic about the lack of originality and the awful contrivances of her plotting. Alas, Fatal Voyage, keeps most of the problems and few of the qualities of Reichs’ previous books.
This time, rather than steal the plot of her novel from French-Canadian headlines, Reichs is a touch more original by using a plane crash as her initial situation. As the novel opens, protagonist Tempe Brennan is in the middle of a debris field, looking dispassionately at body parts strewn across the North Carolinian landscape. As an official investigator for a disaster response team, her efforts to understand what has just happened go awry when an unidentified body part complicates her investigation. The item doesn’t fit anything else on the plane; where has it come from, then?
If you’re familiar with the old joke about an airplane crashing in a graveyard, you’re already far ahead of Reichs’ protagonist. Furthermore, chances are that you’re already half annoyed by this plot cheat. But don’t be too exasperated yet; in typical Reichs fashion, it quickly becomes apparent that her daughter might have been on the plane and that the partner of her good friend Andrew Ryan was also on the plane, escorting a dangerous criminal. Anyone else would say that these are two coincidences too many, but this kind of lazy plotting is, in fact, routine for this author. But wait; there are other howlers later in the book.
The biggest plot cheat is that the plane crash ends up being a sideshow to another, rather less interesting story about a decades-old mystery, a secret society and a bunch of killers hiding corpses in the North Carolinian wilderness. Add to that a rather dull romance and this is one Fatal Voyage where we’re constantly asking ourselves if we’re there yet. As vicious hillbillies threaten Brennan with all sort of bad things, it struck this reviewer that her untimely disappearance wouldn’t be an entirely unwelcome event.
Even the usual reliable standby of the series -the Quebec setting-, disappeared almost entirely from this particular novel. Save for a brief scene, Brennan spends the whole novel in Carolina, with only the (coincidental) presence of Sûreté du Québec policeman Andrew Ryan as a reminder of the usual setting of the series.
What’s worse is that the novel is dull. Fatally dull. The age-old conspiracies are underwhelming, the hillbillies don’t amount to much of a menace and there’s a definite sensation of having seen this before.
In fact, without being so nasty as to accuse Reichs of outright plagiarism, the opening few scenes of Fatal Voyage are very, very similar to James Thayer’s Terminal Event, which also featured an investigator taking a look at a crash scene. The various possibilities about what brought down the plane are also similar; missile, organized crime bomb, political terrorism, etc. While it’s entirely possible that Reichs has read Terminal Event before working on Fatal Voyage, I’d rather blame similar plotting than idea stealing (there are only so many ways a plane can be brought down, after all). Plus, the novels evolve in entirely different directions. Weirder synchronicity has happened before.
But it doesn’t change my perception of Fatal Voyage. Filled with implausible happenstance, kept away from distinctive Quebec and dull above everything else, Fatal Voyage is best avoided. For that matter, I’m starting to think that Reichs’ oeuvre itself is best avoided. It’s not as if there aren’t better writers out there.