2 out of 4 stars
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Picking a new book to read is often like going on a blind date. With some books, it’s easy to see there’s no chemistry, and they can be quickly dumped. Other books start off ticking all the right boxes: suspense, intrigue, thrills, only to become stale and predictable as the evening wears on. Sadly, Murder by Mail by Bill Youngblood is one of the latter.
This mystery/suspense/thriller starts well, introducing Mark Ingle, an inexperienced yet promising detective, and Ben Cromwell, a hard-bitten yet still hungry newspaper reporter. The two are brought together after a string of murders leads them to believe a killer is targeting people who have had their letters to the editor published in Ben’s newspaper. However, after some nice backstory for each of the characters, the investigation slows to a plodding pace and follows an odd trajectory.
Writing a mystery novel these days must be difficult when trying to outsmart readers who have been educated by millions of detective stories in books, podcasts, movies, and TV. Even so, a well-studied mystery writer should know even the most casual fans would raise an eyebrow if a detective revealed the name of a victim before notifying next of kin or divulged key details of a case to a reporter he just met. This could be seen as Youngblood pushing the boundaries of the genre, but since these tropes are merely ignored rather than commented upon, his writing just comes off as lazy or ill-conceived.
At times, Youngblood’s novel feels as if it were written in the late nineties then later pulled out of a drawer and casually brushed up for a more current release. (The characters have cell phones, but don’t use texting.) There is no specific reference to time or place other than winter in a mid-size city named Garrison, which could be anywhere between the Mississippi River and the Rockies. The characters don’t seem to love or hate the city in which they live and work. Neither, therefore, will the reader. In the last half of the novel, Youngblood seems to lose interest in developing his characters, and they become more like game pieces being moved about on a generic city grid.
All in all, Youngblood does construct a mystery to be solved. However, it feels as if he used a “Build-A-Mystery” kit and plugged in the pieces according to a set of instructions rather than trying to use the genre to explore any insights into humanity. So, it’s a chilly, murky night for Murder by Mail with only 2 out of 4 stars peeking through.
Murder by Mail
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