Murder in Thrall
By Anne Cleeland
Kensington Books; 282 pages
What a bleak existence it must be to work as a detective — day after day amid forensics, fingerprints and hysterical witness statements, under deadlines that change at the drop of a hat. It’s a job that must lure do-gooders but also a few misfits and loners. When we think of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, do his drink and cigarette linger more in our memory than the actual cases he solved?
“Murder in Thrall,” the first installment in a mystery series by Anne Cleeland, stars a pair of Scotland Yard detectives who seem to occupy their own odd corners of the world. Their lives center on solving crime, but neither of them seems burning with idealism. Even marriage takes on pragmatic terms; when one proposes to the other, he explains stoically, “We spend a great deal of time together already; our lives would not change very much.”
Those words, delivered early in the book by Chief Inspector Lord Acton to his younger cohort, Constable Kathleen Doyle, set the stage for the rest of “Murder in Thrall,” which is both an intricate whodunit and also a study of two people who seem to have fallen into detective work to satisfy some inexplicable gnawing. The novel doesn’t maintain its tone to the end — the final 40 pages descend into popcorn-movie territory — but it gives us a pair of memorable protagonists, even if they sometimes rise above the material.
In the first chapter of “Murder in Thrall,” Acton and Doyle stake themselves outside a pub in hopes of catching a man who may have information about a recently murdered horse trainer. Their potential witness is nowhere to be found, but the detectives interview a woman who dated him — and who turns up dead soon after.
As more slayings follow throughout the area, it grows apparent that they are connected. Meanwhile, the story’s other thread — the budding romance — plays out in unexpected ways. Acton, a high-ranking officer with distinguished lineage, and Doyle, a lower-class Irishwoman who frets over her vocabulary, are hardly peers, but they bond on an intellectual level as well as a physical one.
Cleeland, a Newport Beach resident, has a smooth way with dialogue, and many of her characters’ conversations play like subtle games of reason and wit. Indeed, during much of their repartee, I more or less forgot about the case at hand and focused on the delicate turns of phrase. (“I am open to the suggestion,” Acton offers at one point when the devout Doyle asks if he believes in God.)
That’s why the book’s end is a letdown — after admirably shading her characters, the author builds to a confrontation in which their actions feel dictated by the plot’s needs rather than logic. Gene Siskel, who coined the phrase “Fallacy of the Talking Killer” to describe scenes in which a villain spiels endlessly instead of shooting his intended target, might have winced here, and Doyle’s activities in the ensuing pages seem highly unlikely for a woman in her condition.
Still, I look forward to meeting Cleeland’s heroes again. The author’s website already posts an excerpt from the second installment, “Murder in Retribution,” which has them dealing with an underworld turf war and a child on the way. There’s suspense to be had with the Russian mafia and Sinn Fein, no doubt, but I’m most interested in which parent will read “Hop on Pop.”
Bottle Cap Sky
Michael and the Lonesome Playboys
Blackwater Records; LP
Music is a medium that carries an artist’s emotion and soul to listeners. It’s a way to express one’s self with rhythm and instruments.
You need three key elements to effectively convey your message through music: the band, the lyrics and the vocals. In Michael and the Lonesome Playboys’ latest record, “Bottle Cap Sky,” I only found two of the three; it lacked good vocals.
It’s not that frontman Michael Ubaldini can’t sing. But his vocal abilities seem a little flat and soulless in these 15 tracks.
Take the opening track, “Walk Through Fire.” It’s a song about the struggles people go through and how they can overcome any problem. Some of the lyrics appear to allude to a heart-valve infection that Ubaldini publicly battled several years ago: “See a man laying in his bed, he can walk through fire / When on the brink of being dead, he can walk through fire.”
The band is in the background giving Ubaldini a good foundation, and his lyrics, though a tad repetitive, complement the music. The lead vocal, however, falls by the wayside and doesn’t add that punch of emotion to the song. The backing vocals help a little bit, but I was waiting for something more from the heart.
“Someone Should Put You On Trial” is an interesting track, to say the least. It’s got a moody, bluesy feel to it and makes you feel like you’re wandering the desert. As I listened to the song multiple times, the harmonica in the song reminded me of something. It took me a while to figure it out, but then it hit me: It was reminiscent of the theme song of the 1990s sitcom “Roseanne.”
This is one of the better songs Ubaldini has to offer on the album. There was one thing that did bug me about this song and the second-to-last track, “Steel Train": They just fade off into the ether. Lots of songs fade out, but Ubaldini picks weird spots to start the fade. You never see them coming, and before you know it, you’re already on the next track.
There’s one aspect to this album that I truly respect: Ubaldini decided to track all the songs using analog tape, which is a dying medium to record music on. After watching the documentary “Sound City” by Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, I’ve developed a new respect for what it takes to record music on magnetic tape rather than a digital file.
In the liner notes, Ubaldini emphasizes the fact that he used minimal overdubbing and didn’t use auto-tune or audio samples. I applaud his effort to keep his music as raw and unedited as possible, but a little more vocal overdubs and layering wouldn’t hurt his cause.
—Anthony Clark Carpio