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Someone waits concealed, near a jogging trail, for his next victim. Oblivious, Sherry Coltrane runs by, the run a part of her preparation for a marathon. Without warning, she's hit by something, then, slowly, begins to lose consciousness. When she falls, the killer takes her and carries her into the woods…
The suspense starts right away, and the opening is written in a clear, smooth style that grabs your attention. The kidnapping turns out to be one of a number of similar incidents in the Portland area: someone is taking young women and doing unspeakable things to them. This is a good setup that is well executed.
Of Blood and Blackwater is a very well-written, creative, novel that stumbles because of problems with the plot.
The first problem is that the storyline about the detective and the law enforcement search for the killer does not really work because there is no obvious relationship between the investigation storyline and the Gareth storyline. We are left wondering whether this is a story about the detective looking for a killer, or a story of the college professor, Gareth who is somehow involved with the killings. Most, if not all, thrillers use multiple story lines to create suspense and tension but they do so by making the multiple story lines collide, the collision will creating problems and complications for the characters. There is nothing wrong with the two storylines in this book, of course, but they must be related somehow, must collide, and this must happen in the first third of the book—sooner even, if possible. But 100 pages through the 400+ page novel, the link between the storylines remains unclear, and, as a result, the suspense that existed earlier slacks.
Another problem lies with the presentation of the killer. In his book Along Came a Spider, Patterson makes it clear right away who the kidnapper is and what his plans are. In Blood and Blackwater, we don’t know much about the killer, his identity, motives, or goals. Suspense is always increased, in thrillers, if we know who the antagonist is and what his plans are. When we know, for instance, that the killer becomes interested in the protagonist and then targets his wife, the tension arises out of the uncertainty as to what will happen. Suppose that the detective found the dart in the very first few pages, went to Gareth, and that this became known to the killer, who would then take an interest in Gareth, and his wife. Now there would be tension and suspense because Gareth would be in danger, and the story lines would be interwoven. If the identity, plans, and motives of the antagonist are unclear, then danger that threatens the protagonist becomes diluted, and suspense and tension slacken. Of course, a writer may keep the identity of the killer a secret, but then the story becomes a mystery, and the bulk of the problem the protagonist faces is in figuring out who the killer is. You can do many things when you write a thriller, but one thing that you can't do is to have suspense and tension slacken. Which brings me to the final problem—escalation.
In Blood and Blackwater, there is no escalation for the first 150 pages. The reason for this is that there is no complication in any of the storylines that impacts the flow of the other storyline. The killer just kills and does not make a mistake. The police catch no break. Gareth does not become involved with either the killer or the detective. The storylines proceed, essentially, in parallel. They can't. Not in a thriller. Although sometimes multiple story lines are called parallel, they are not; storylines always converge and the moment of their convergence creates turbulence, complications, and problems for the characters in the story.
A good book must certainly be well edited, and Blood and Blackwater is; but a good book also must have a great deal of plot editing, which Blood and Blackwater lacks. Plot is the engine of the thriller, and a weak plot is the hallmark of an under performing book.