Rick Mofina

Be Mine, Rick Mofina

Pinnacle, 2004, 344 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-7860-1526-8

I’ve been following the career of local Ottawa-based mystery writer Rick Mofina with some interest, even despite my occasional reservations about the way he re-uses and overuses elements of his continuing series. As I mentioned in my review of his previous novel No Way Back, protagonist Tom Ridge has had members of his family kidnapped or threatened roughly once per book so far, and it was a fair question to ask whether Mofina could free himself from one of the cheapest thrills in the genre.

If nothing else, Be Mine shows that Mofina is capable of playing creatively in his own sandbox. While firmly set in the established universe of Mofina’s series, Be Mine has the good sense to focus on other things: The result is, despite a number of mis-steps, closer to what feels like a reasonable thriller as much as it’s a murder mystery.

While series protagonists Tom Reed (journalist) and Walt Sydowski (policeman) are in no immediate danger this time around, one can’t say the same about Tom’s colleague Molly Wilson. Molly, a supporting series character here getting a starring turn, is devastated when she learns that her cop boyfriend has been found dead, possibly murdered. Could this possibly be the work of a desperate stalker trying to kill any possible competition for her affection?

Of course it is. The only questions worth asking in this type of thriller are Who? and How long before he strikes again?

Quickly, efficiently, Mofina cranks up the tension. His real-life experience in newsrooms serves him well when comes the time to show how the media reacts to a crisis, especially when one of their own is concerned. As with the series’ previous novels, editorial conflicts, procedural details and deadline imperatives all add to the verisimilitude of the book and give a different spin to the usual police thriller. Tom Reed is once more on the case, and everyone will be overjoyed to learn that neither he or his family even come close to being kidnapped during the course of this adventure.

The prose is brisk and transparent, delivering the kind of efficient reading experience that Mofina fans have come to expect from the author. This is a classic paperback thriller, fit to entertain on the bus and be read in not much more than an afternoon.

Which isn’t to say that the book doesn’t have its occasional weaknesses. The identity of the killer (after multiple red herrings and a narration that pretty much lies to us), is a real let-down, completely ludicrous yet easily deducible by experienced genre readers. (For the second time this month, I found myself muttering “Don’t do that, don’t go there, don’t make this guy the real killer” as I was nearing the end of a book.) It’s fortunate that there’s more to mysteries than a simple revelation of the killer’s identity, because that “No! It’s him!” shtick is getting seriously old. (What happened to real procedurals? Eh, don’t answer that.)

Among other minor let-downs, I note a weak resolution to this book’s bit of newsroom infighting, almost as if Mofina was reaching the degree of diminishing returns with his series of Bad Editors. Then there’s the book’s last-minute slide from murder mystery to action thriller, in an explosive finale that feels disconnected from the rest of the novel. Maybe it’s time for Mofina to commit himself to a full-fledged action thriller from start to finish?

But all in all, it’s hard to be disappointed: After five books, Mofina fans know what they’re going to get with every book. While annoying, Be Mine is generally as enjoyable as Mofina’s previous novels and avoids many of the pitfalls that plagued his last few books. While I remain convinced that the Reed/Skydowski protagonists are played out as dramatic leads, Be Mine is fair in how it uses their particular skills in service of someone else’s story. I remain hopeful that Mofina will next tackle a different set of characters (Indeed, The Dying Hour seems to feature new protagonists) and maybe step up the ambition of his projects, but Be Mine is a solid entry that should satisfy his fans.

No Way Back, Rick Mofina

Pinnacle, 2003, 374 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-7860-1225-X

While I have generally enjoyed local writer Rick Mofina’s first three novels (If Angels Fall, Cold Fear and Blood of Others), I haven’t been shy to criticize protagonist Tom Reed’s complicated work/life balance as an overused plot device. It quickly gets worse in No Way Back: Barely forty pages in, Reed’s wife is kidnapped by Reed-hating criminals who just happened to recognize her during a bank heist.

At least this happens upfront. The rest of the novel is a lengthy chase in which Reed goes well beyond his job as a reporter to get his wife back. Series co-protagonist Walt Sydowski also returns, though there isn’t as much for him to do this time around. This is Reed’s show, and he gets one of the series’ best moment in Chapter 40, as he confronts (or is rather confronted by) a big-time drug dealer who may have information about the identity of his wife’s kidnapper.

Generally speaking, No Way Back is Mofina’s best book yet, mostly because he manages to milk an impressive amount of plot out of a very simple setup. The tension steadily ratchets upward, even as the body count accumulates and several false herrings are thrown to the reader. Mofina’s constant focus on journalism as an adjunct to police work is once again in full display. Here, “good” newspaper reporter Tom Reed is compared and contrasted to a “bad” tabloid show journalist, who stops at nothing to get exclusive footage she can sell at a profit. (Her porn-star-like name is no accident; as is wont with that type of one-note antagonist, her previous activities include nothing less than Thai pornography. Naughty, girl, naughty!)

[April-May 2008: From the “reality inspired by fiction” department, it turns out (looking at my web referer logs) that there is now a small-time blonde porn model named like the tabloid show antagonist of the novel. Since I like to keep a clean site, I have scrubbed the name of said antagonist for this review. Invert “enyaL aiT” and Google it up, if you’re curious.]

I was rather less impressed at the peculiar nature of memory so common in serial mystery fiction. As usual, Tom Reed can’t seem to remember that bad stuff always happen to him or his family. He can’t seem to be able to comfort his son by saying “look, champ, three books ago you were kidnapped by a crazy criminal and I still saved you in the nick of time, right?” In doing so and ignoring entire portions of his previous volumes, Mofina tries to have it both ways: All the attachement of recurring characters without any of the complications associated with such re-use. I understand the commercial necessity of developing series to pre-sell a struggling author’s next volume, but I would rather see a “same universe” sequence over a “same protagonist” series where events have to be conveniently forgotten like that. Cold Fear took a step in the right direction by re-using Reed and Sydowski in extended cameos. One would hope that future books will be similar in construction.

Because, oh yes, there will be other books, I’m sure of it. Other novels that I’ll end up reading. There is a compelling quality to Mofina’s stories that is good enough even as it is, and if No Way Back is any indication, he’s steadily improving the quality and sustainability of his suspense. The next volume is announced for 2004: Let’s see what’s next.

Blood of Others, Rick Mofina

Pinnacle, 2002, 466 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-7860-1267-6

(Obligatory disclaimer; adjust the following review according to my acknowledged favorable bias for A> local authors and B> authors I’ve met.)

Fans of Rick Mofina, rejoice; the Ottawa-area thriller writer shows no sign of slowing down, turning in his third novel in three years. After the unconventional Cold Fear this novel is somewhat of a return to the settings, characters and conventional structure of his first book, If Angels Fall.

For one thing, Blood of Others is mostly located back in San Francisco, where the events of the first novel took place. For another, Blood of Others features the protagonists of Mofina’s first novel in a rather more active role than in Cold Fear.

As the story begins, a few months have gone by since the events of the previous novel, but things look a lit like they did two novels ago; Walt Skydowski is still the same irascible super-cop, though he’s making progress on the dating front. Tom Reed is still an overworked, underappreciated journalist, hated by his bad boss, hounded by his wife and once again on the prowl for a good story. He’s about to get a big one; the spectacularly ghoulish display of a murder victim leads him to an informant who claims to have seen the victim enter a police car on the day of the murder. Clearly, something is up and neither Tom nor Walt have any idea what they’re up against. Fortunately, another character looks as if he does, and by the end of the book, we can only wonder if the next novel won’t feature a third major recurring character…

It’s risky to talk about “an author’s favorite themes” after only three books, but risk has never stopped this particular reviewer in the past. Truth is, anyway, that several familiar elements do re-occur. The antagonism between the media and the police is still very present and personified by Tom and Walt’s antagonistic relationship. On the other hand, Tom’s complicated work/life balance is getting overused as a dramatic device. It would be about time for him to have a good boss and be able to write his articles without antagonizing his whole family. Maybe in time for the next novel!

Still, there’s no denying that Mofina is becoming better and better. The overall pacing of Blood of Others is generally more sustained than that of its predecessor, and the hair-raising finale is appropriately located at a San Francisco landmark. I wasn’t overly impressed by the antagonist in this volume, but then again I’m liable to unfavorably prejudiced whenever a character like that turns out to be a raving psychopath. (There’s also the whole bad-internet-bad! angle, but I need to lighten up about such things) Still, I wonder if the little time-bomb buried at the end of the epilogue will be used in Mofina’s next novels in the Reed/Skydowski cycle. Tick-tick-tick-tick…

In the meantime, have fun with Mofina’s first three novels. I’m impressed enough to put him on my short to-buy list, though I’ll be the first to admit that his stuff fits squarely in the crime-fiction mid-list, there isn’t anything wrong with that. At least you can rest assured of a good read; Mofina writes clearly and concisely and with more than enough suspense to keep you intrigued. A promising initial trilogy from a writer to watch.

Cold Fear, Rick Mofina

Pinnacle, 2001, 476 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-7860-1266-8

(Necessary disclaimer: Please adjust review according to my known bias toward A> Authors I have met and B> Authors who live in the Ottawa area.)

In his first novel, If Angels Fall, Rick Mofina proved he could take a familiar story and tell it well enough to warrant compulsive reading. In Cold Fear, he tries something more original and succeeds despite a plot that takes a while before truly beginning.

It starts, trivially enough, with a family quarrel deep in Glacier National Park. The little girl of the family is frightened enough to run away from the camp site and gets lost. Her disappearance is signaled to authorities, park-wide searching begins and the police is called in to investigate the parent. It seems that in situations like these, it’s not impossible that the parents of the “lost” children are, in fact, responsible for their disappearances.

Already, we can see two recurring themes from Mofina’s first book; children in danger and perfectly comprehensible misunderstandings between parties involved. If Angels Fall depicted the hunt for a child kidnapper and honestly highlighted tensions between the police and the media. This time around, there the third party represented by the parents, and of course the little girl. As the omniscient reader, we’re privy to the truth, but our characters are not, and Mofina milks a lot of tension between the inevitable clashes between these naturally opposed parties.

It gets worse (or better, for us readers) when the true plot of the novel emerges in the latter half, introducing yet another party, a criminal presence whose shadow looms large on the proceedings even more than a quarter-century after an horrific event. Stuff happens in a delightfully chaotic way and very soon everyone converges toward a dramatic climax that feels quite contrived, but satisfying nonetheless.

For fans of If Angels Fall, Cold Fear does stand alone given that the two protagonists of the first book are here reduced to glorified cameos. Even then, alas, there are quite a few spoilers for the previous novel in the brief time both characters are present… so you might avoid this book anyway if you plan on reading Mofina’s first novel anytime soon. One returning protagonist at least has the glamorous role of setting in motion the media circus that comes to dominate the last third of the novel. I was particularly impressed by Chapter Fifty-Seven, which succinctly describes how an exclusive scoop can dominate a nation’s thoughtspace in a few hours. It’s a great piece of writing by an author who knows these things.

While the rest of the novel is not as spectacular, the prose is no slouch as far as interest is concerned; you can easily zip through Mofina’s book, compelled by the steadily engrossing plotting, good characters and the easy prose. This is crime fiction in its most readable state.

In short, there isn’t much to complain about Rick Mofina’s Cold Fear. The child-in-peril is a good hook to interest readers, and the rest of the novel propels itself forward with great ease. It’s a assured piece of fiction by a writer who seems more than capable of holding his own in the crowded crime fiction category. I’m not an entirely unbiased reader when in comes to Rick Mofina, but why don’t you check out one of his books at the local library?

If Angels Fall, Rick Mofina

Pinnacle, 2000, 477 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-7860-1061-4

(Necessary Disclaimer: I met Rick Mofina at the local mall, where he was holding a signing session for his three books. Half an hour later, I had discovered that Mofina was a local author and left with three autographed books. Adjust the following review accounting for my favorable bias in favor of Canadian/Ontarian/Local authors. Oh, and visit www.rickmofina.com, willya?)

It can be difficult, in this age of jaded readers, for a new writer to distinguish himself from every other storyteller on the market. Dozen of crime thrillers are published every month; how can they stand out?

Sometime, just doing the job well can be enough. Rick Mofina’s first novel, If Angels Fall, is in some way a novel we’ve seen many times before, with a deranged antagonist, kids in peril, a burnt-out hero whose involvement eventually becomes very personal and an ace policeman who’s seen far too many of these cases… but in its own fashion, If Angels Fall is a fine thriller with just enough distinctiveness to make it a worthwhile read.

It certainly grabs you by the throat right at the beginning, as we’re witness to the sudden kidnapping of a young girl from her unsuspecting father. Crime is one thing; crime against children is another. You don’t need to be a parent to be involved. Manipulative or not, this draws us straight in the novel as we try to figure out what is happening, and as we empathize with the grieving parents. We also identify with the kids, as Mofina draws us into their mind-set in a fashion that is not predictably patronizing.

In short order, we’re introduced to the two protagonists of If Angels Fall: One is Walter Sydowski, a veteran policeman whose cynical behavior has been made impregnable by years of police work. The other is the far more interesting Tom Reed, a journalist who has to live, every day, with a fatal mistake. This division of hero-duties is one of the things to like about If Angels Fall, as the protagonist doesn’t have to be an omnipotent superhero to be at all places at all time. Sydowski handles the police viewpoint; Reed the media aspect. The two rarely mesh well together.

As a matter of fact, the journalistic angle brought up by Reed is the one of the main selling points of the novel: While crime thrillers all too often consider the media as annoying gadflies (or even worse; bunglers with ghastly consequences), this insider’s look at journalism is original enough to be compelling. As both the media and the police investigation converge on the main suspect, this makes things more interesting than usual. As a journalist, Mofina’s familiarity with the newsroom shows and illuminates an original section of the novel.

What’s less original is that eventually, Reed’s involvement in the case becomes very personal. This loved-ones-as-victims crime-thriller shtick is something that’s been driving me nuts for a while now, but I can still get over it, and it’s not as if Reed’s conflict with the murderer isn’t completely organic to the story. As a matter of fact, it’s one of the crucial elements of the plot and doesn’t feel overly tacked-on: Reed has tremendous personal issues to solve, and the involvement of his family only makes a bad situation even worse.

Considered as a whole, If Angels Fall works quite well. The writing is fluid and limpid. The plot converges to a tense resolution. The characters are depicted with an adequate amount of vividness. There’s a lot to like here for genre readers. While Mofina’s first novel doesn’t redefine the genre, it doesn’t need to: what it needed to do is to prove that Mofina can handle a genre novel with aplomb, and that is obvious by the time the story ends. On to his next book, then.