3 out of 4 stars
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Pancake Money by Finn Bell is a grisly thriller set in small-town New Zealand, where saintly Catholic priests are dying in particularly gruesome ways. Detective partners Bobby Ress and Pollo Latu team up to discover the identity of the “Holy Man Killer” – and hopefully prevent any further deaths. They confront uncertainty, gang relationships, family tragedy, and their own desires for safety in order to beat the ticking clock and catch the perpetrator before he (or she) disappears forever.
Pancake Money is not just action-packed and thrilling; it also takes the reader on a philosophical journey, discussing at length the psychology of pain, family relationships, and mental illness. Watching from Bobby’s perspective, you get to observe his mind piece together the puzzle of a serial killer: Are these deaths caused by an individual or a group? Is the motive sex, money, or power? Are the victims random or intentional?
This story is not exceptionally long, yet the plot is fully developed. The identity of the killer is not revealed until the final chapter, yet for most of the book it is obvious that there are only two possible outcomes. However, there are enough twists and interesting elements that kept me reading and enjoying the journey. The most gripping aspect of this plot is that it is entirely believable.
Finn Bell knows how to create a character that sticks with you. Bobby and Pollo are the perfect match-up, each with their own quirks and backgrounds. By the end of the book, each character’s motivations are clearly defined, and you can anticipate how each person will react to his circumstances. Due to the short length, a few of the side characters are perhaps more obtuse than needed, but they are used well, regardless.
My main concern about this book is its style. Because it is written from Bobby’s perspective, the entire book is in dialogue style, albeit inner dialogue. That means everything is present tense, and the sentences are extremely short. Often they are not full sentences. While technically correct, clipped present tense is not my favorite to read. In addition, the philosophical discussions are repeated again and again, with no new information added to each repetition. Getting into a detective’s mind is one thing; getting stuck on a loop is an entirely other, far less pleasant experience.
The only other issue with Pancake Money is the title. I do not fully understand the reference, as the words “pancake money” are only used a few times in the book, and they are never fully explained. It’s a catchy title, but perhaps a better option would have been Breaking Point, as the main conflict revolves around identifying the point at which repeated infliction of pain will result in mental illness.
All in all, I greatly enjoyed this book. There were some grammatical errors, but not enough for me to be bothered by them. I will warn you, it is quite graphic. I made the mistake of reading this one in my first trimester of pregnancy; I suggest you have a stronger stomach than mine when you attempt it.
The plot and characters of Pancake Money recommend a high rating, but the clipped writing style and lengthy repeated philosophizing lead me to rate it 3 out of 4 stars. It may not be for everyone, but Pancake Money is certainly a fascinating and enjoyable read.
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