Death du Jour, Kathy Reich

Pocket, 1999, 451 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-01137-5

It has to be difficult, being a mystery fiction author. Not only do your stories have to be sufficiently easy to read on the bus (where, I’d wager, most of America’s crime-fiction reading takes place), but it’s got to be sufficiently complex as to not disappoint die-hard fans of the genre. Add to that the usual trappings of a writer’s life (like, oh, finding inspiration, finding the time to write, finding an audience and keeping all of those) and you really feel sorry when a novel somehow doesn’t match expectations. Such is the case with Kathy Reich’s second novel, Death du Jour.

As a French-Canadian, I have a natural liking for Reich’s series of novels featuring Temperance Brennan, an American forensic anthropologist working in Quebec. Most of Brennan’s adventures take place in or around Montreal, the other characters are often francophones and the Quebec-related details are usually adequate. Brennan (and Reichs) being outsiders in “my” culture, they can bring a different perspective that’s always interesting. I can never quite escape the feeling of “animal in a zoo”, but that’s not so bad.

The first novel, Deja Dead, was decent, though it nearly approached cliché in its depiction of yet another crazed serial killer and the spunky female protagonist that tracked him. (Readers across North America yawned in unison when the two finally fought each other in the heroine’s apartment at the end of the book. Deja vu, all right! Pundits bitch about the effect of movies on people, but I bet they never mean that.)

At least Death du jour avoids dealing with yet another another crazed serial killer by focusing on… something else. Though initially about a set of corpses discovered in a burned-up house, it’s quickly obvious that Reich’s second novel will be about crazed killer sects. How quickly obvious will depend on your knowledge of Quebec criminal history and general crime-fiction. On that, in turn, will hinge your appreciation of the novel.

Allow me to explain: Quebec is such a small province (7 million people, roughly half that around Montreal… that’s even less that only the city of New York!) that major criminal matters tends to be infrequent, and well-publicized when they do happen. Hence the publicity made around “L’ordre du Temple Solaire”, a cult that ultimately self-destructed by mass suicide, in Quebec and in Switzerland. The fallout of this affair, a mysterious fire that took a few more victims, made news for a week or so.

Guess what happens in Death du Jour? Granted, not everyone will make the links, but those who do will have to tolerate another hundred pages as the cult angle becomes clear.

Worse is Reichs’ frequent use of interconnections between the novel’s characters. A randomly-chosen university professor is tied with a cult leader and with a student whose friends are coincidentally discovered murdered and so on and so forth. Those who hate coincidences in novels should stay clear of this one, where it smacks of bad plotting.

The complete cluelessness of the characters is another sore point, as they fail to links event that are nevertheless obvious to the reader. It doesn’t help that Reich’s is downright lazy in her plotting: When Brennan’s sister attends “a lifestyle seminar” in the middle of a cult-driven novel, you don’t have to be a genius to know what’s going to happen.

Oh, and the climax takes place during The Ice Storm of 1998. Isn’t stealing from The Montreal Gazette wonderful?

Reader reactions will vary depending on their tolerances for such writing laziness. Even though I really wanted to give a chance to Death du Jour, there were simply too many annoyances to give it anything better than a disappointing grade.

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