Book Review: Mount Diablo – Murder Maybe

Mount Diablo Murder MaybeMount Diablo: Murder Maybe, by Nicole Douglas, self published (www.mountdiablobook.com), 2012, 302 pages, $14.00

With the recent publication of Mount Diablo: Murder Maybe, a self published novel set in the San Francisco East Bay by local author Nicole Douglas, somewhere deep in the granite bedrock bowels of Mount Diablo the Devil is rolling over in his grave. Following a plot so transparent the dust jacket blurb may as well carry a ‘Spoiler Alert,’ perhaps a more apt subtitle for this devil-may-care dud would have been Mystery Maybe.

Meet Ellen Savage, an up-and-coming homicide investigator with the Contra Costa County Coroner’s Office. She’s single, she’s young, she’s attractive. And she’s not looking for a relationship.

Enter Steven Gray, Savage’s new partner. He’s young, he’s tall, he’s handsome. And within the first twenty pages, there’s no question Savage is going to crush on Gray big time, tripping over her tongue like a moon-eyed Sweet Valley High-school girl as she vacillates between her dual personalities as his stalwart supervisor and a woman not (maybe) looking for a relationship.

Together, Savage and Gray have been tasked with solving the murder (maybe) of a young woman found atop moody Mount Diablo in the State Park’s historical Visitor Center tower– her throat has been cut, her fingerprints removed, her stomach carved with a pentagram, her naked body splayed across the meridian marker. With the county’s detectives stretched thin, Savage and Gray are the bottom of the barrel, the boys hired to do a man’s job.

Trapped in a Dick-and-Jane story arc, Savage and Gray come across as forgettable protagonists with flaccid personalities. If there is one thing this myopic duo lack, it’s savvy. If only a reader could slip them the dust jacket, they might stand a chance of solving the case within the first fifty pages. Instead, they wander aimlessly around the Bay Area following their “trail of clues” (a phrase not even Inspector Clouseau or Colonel Mustard would use). When they’re not misinterpreting evidence (that’s what the big boys call it), they’re nursing cups of coffee or eagerly awaiting quitting time so they can garden or feed the cat or fawn after each other. And the gracelessness of their elementary interrogation skills is matched only by their grade school fumblings at flirtation, making you grateful for the awkward silences when they’re confused (which is most of the time), drinking coffee, or asleep.

When Savage and Gray’s first ‘clue’ – a park map showing the location of broken branches and trampled grass that might shed light on what trail was used to transport the body to the summit (a ‘clue’ critical to their obtaining a warrant to search the mysterious ranch nearby) – goes missing, these Hardly Boys break all the rules to break the case. Although she imagines herself at times “a crass women”, “a bitch”, and “pretty convincingly tough,” Savage’s idea of playing the bad cop is her liberal dispensation of the word ‘hell’ and a few ‘goddams’ for good measure. Still, when it’s time to hit the slopes of Mount Diablo, she isn’t afraid to congratulate herself on wearing her sensible shoes to work.

Douglas pitches Mount Diablo: Murder Maybe – frozen in 1989 – as a ‘retro’ mystery where, “before CSI, DNA or wide use computers, law enforcement was a different game.” I could buy that if the absence of mobile phones and personal desktop computers played an important part in this charade. Instead, we watch scene after scene play out as Savage and Gray’s secretary sells them on the idea of, and then has installed, their very own computer terminal, phone modem, and printer (“Whatever we see on the computer’s screen, we can print out here.”) <gasp!>.

If the devil is in the details, this novel is short an inferno of devils. Between the inexcusable typos (Douglas is a retired teacher, no less!), the anomalous geography, and the anemic excuse for a plot, the only thing holding this story together is its binding. If I had a nickel for every lazy use of alright, really, just, ahold, and literally uttered between these hollowed pages, not to mention the irreverent abuse of alright vs all right, awhile vs a while, were vs we’re, and their, they’re, and there, I could make change for a twenty dollar bill. Make that a hundred dollar bill if we’re counting the glut of commas that pollute the pages. If our protagonists had experienced half as many aha! moments as the reader does typos, this might have been an open-and-shut case. Take for instance, “…doesn’t he say the park closes a dusk ?” (p 19), “She toweled dried her hair” (p 81), or “The early morning sunshine poured in the through the windows…” (p 109). And then there are the awkward Malapropisms: dissent instead of descent (“the path… began a steep dissent” [p 145]), ass hole instead of asshole (“I… say this guy is an ass hole” [p 286]). Instead of a murder suspect, perhaps Savage and Gray should have been looking for a copy editor.

For a novel that features Mount Diablo, Douglas’ sense of geography is incongruent with the Bay Area I know. In this backwards Bay Area, the bustling Concord is portrayed as a glorified Walnut Creek, while the East Bay’s communities come in two flavors – gated communities or liquor store slums. In this Contra Costa County Candyland, you don’t need to draw a gumdrop card to jump on Interstate 80 from Treat Boulevard, Mount Diablo spills through your windshield as you drive East on Highway 4 from Byron toward Stockton (that’s the Sierra Range, Savage, Diablo is behind you!), and you can zig-zag your way up to the summit of Mount Diablo from the City of Clayton off Kirker Pass Road. On this magical mystery tour, the Treat Boulevard (mentioned above) and Shattuck Avenue have either been beset by typos, or inexplicably transmogrified into Treat Street and Shaddock for no apparent reason. And characters order ‘Mendocino water’ instead of, what? Calistoga sparkling mineral water? Really, how… clever?

Meanwhile, in the natural history department, toyon bush is spelled toyan, prairie dogs have infiltrated across the Sierra Range from the prairies to the Delta, scrub oak graces the summit of Mount Diablo, and the common names of wildlife species (Blue Jays, house sparrows, Mockingbirds, gopher, Marsh Hawk), trees (Redwood, madrone), and wildlife professionals (Ranger/ranger) are indiscriminately capitalized.

Out of respect for the clinically brain dead, the criminally insane, or those with a penchant for Schadenfreude, I won’t tip my hat as to who the killer might be (Hint: dust jacket!). But with vapid filler like “Thinking wasn’t going to help,” “She decided to think about it later,” and “Maybe she would think about it later” (oh, the word play! <swoon>),  it becomes clear the only people Douglas’ threadbare mystery keeps in suspense are her own Savage and Gray, two dicks that couldn’t solve a riddle.

But honestly – between me and you – if I wanted to get away with murder, I couldn’t think of two better Barney Fifes I’d want assigned to my case. I know a dog and a van full of kids that would have solved this mystery with more grace and cunning.

As the bodies and the pages mount, the elephant in the room becomes not who did it, but how not a single soul in this slap-dash charade could possibly name a suspect if someone held a gun to their head. Which is pretty much how it plays out in the last ten pages when the unsuspected murder suspect no one suspected waves a gun at our clueless dumbshoe while improbably confessing their crime. Hell, I’d confess too if it meant a quick and painless death.

So while I could never go out on a limb to recommend Mount Diablo: Murder Maybe (at least, not with a straight face), if you mistakenly purchased it thinking it was a field guide or stumble across one of the five copies in circulation in a used bookstore (as soon as I’m done with this review, there will be six), at least do me the favor of sharing your thoughts in the comments below.

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