Saturday, October 25, 2008

Review - Virgins and Martyrs

Virgins and Martyrs Virgins and Martyrs by Simon Maginn

The concept of this book intrigued me, although the "back of the book" description just contains a fairly mundane detective story with hints at the paranormal. Superimposing the title and cover art over the description pulled me in and set my expectations for an interesting murder mystery with strange religious overtones.


There are five "main" characters in the book: Daniel, Wendy, the skinhead, the professor, and the detective inspector.

Daniel's character was intriguing to me as an introspective on a person in mental anguish. Even before he moves into "the house" and begins his downward spiral, Daniel was obviously suffering mental turmoil. His interactions with his mother and roommates, as well as their thoughts and descriptions of him, were great illustrations of someone suffering depression or some other mental imbalance. His lack of focus. His lack of emotion. His inability to commit himself to even simplistic decisions in life with any passion. These are actions of a mind disjointed from the world. Once he gets into the house, he's taken into even more turmoil. Unfortunately, because he was already lost at sea, he didn't have the strength to interpret and overcome the powers working on him and as a result, he nearly suffers the same fate.

Wendy was a strange character but I had some trouble with her motivations. It's apparent that she too must suffer from some psychological shortcomings that made her susceptible to the behaviors she carried out. And yet, we're not given a thorough enough backstory or enough fleshing out of her character to fully understand her actions. The best view we could have gotten of Wendy would have been through the dowager Duchess, but sadly the dowager was too caught up in herself to give us a good view of Wendy.

For the most part, the "skinhead" is a fairly flat character...he's not even given a name. We get him best fleshed out through his actions (which we don't see much of until the end) and through the professor's views of him. I'll speak more about the professor in a minute, but generally I would have liked to have seen more fleshing out of both the skinhead and the professor in terms of their thoughts and actions.

The detective was an intriguing and yet typical character. Pulled from the set of many crime dramas, we have a semi-burned-out inspector with troubles at home at the end of his rope to solve a strange crime. I think the best segments with the inspector were near the end of the book while he was doing the stakeout in front of the house. We finally got to really get into his head and his psyche. The scene where he imagines the fight/beating of his son was especially interesting to his character. I would have enjoyed more details about the inspector.

Plot, pacing, etc.

As I mentioned initially, the base plot is fairly straightforward. The twists come in the 'supernatural' influences on Daniel and on the motives of the killer.

The supernatural elements were subtle at first. I loved the way the author worked in ghostly dialog without calling attention to it. The early segments where Daniel was thinking to himself or working through things and the author just dropped a name or a thought into the passage that were completely out of line with Daniel's character, but directly in line with the ghost...very subtle and very effective. As the supernatural basically came to inhabit Daniel and take over his actions and behaviors, the effectiveness broke down, not because of the mechanism, but because of the time involved in carrying it out.

The pacing was the main thing that pulled this novel down for me. Elements were introduced and put into motion early on. We were quickly given enough depth to understand the situation and even to predict the way things would pan out. Unfortunately, the next 2/3 of the novel were spent with layer upon layer of suspenseful tension even though we already knew they were coming. After a few chapters, something needed to be there to break the suspense. Instead, it just plateaued to the extent that there was nowhere for it to go. In terms of rising action --> climax --> falling action...the suspense plateaued the novel early on such that there could be no more rising action and there was no real way to climax because the structure didn't permit rising higher.

Thus, when the "climax" did finally come, it felt very staid and almost trite by the time things played out. Despite the potential intensity of things, the action felt slow and dry to me.

Something that may have helped create greater intensity while also breaking up the suspense plateau would have been better use of the secondary characters. The scene with the dowager Duchess in the taxi with Daniel was far more climactic to me than the final climax. Even though the scene was just a couple of pages, it was intriguing and effective. I would have liked to see more scenes of a similar vein.

Of particular interest would have been more involvement from the professor. I enjoyed having the professor as a sort of "sounding wall" for Daniel as he talked to himself and received replies from the professor as Daniel thought he would answer. As the professor got more fleshed out and began reading Daniel's thesis and later the skinhead's thesis, he turned into a historical lecturer rather than an intriguing character. He had the potential to get involved in the drama and present some additional forms of action. Instead, he read us piles of research data and provided his opinions but ended up being a random thread never brought to fruition.


Generally I found the theme interesting. The research and thesis presented were intriguing and presented an interesting backdrop to an otherwise straightforward and typical murder mystery. The suspense factor started out good but stagnated and failed to develop into an intensity worth waiting for.

From a high level, the book reminded me of the movie What Lies Beneath from a few years back in terms of structure (not in terms of motive/characters). That movie succeeded where this book failed for me in that the suspense built slowly over time and as it finally reached the breaking point, a true climax was presented and carried out over the course of a few intense scenes. In the book, the suspense grew quickly and maintained itself over the course of a few hundred pages such that short scene of climax couldn't adequately release the buildup.

I guess I would have liked to see this book either shorter, or filled with more scenes of action (probably by having the professor and detective into the action similar to the Duchess in the taxi). I wouldn't want it to turn into a "shock-fest", with constant jolts every couple of chapters, but it would have been nice to see more direct application of the supernatural or the macabre (because truly, the motive was rather macabre in its completion).

Don't let my "low" rating discourage you from this author. I rather enjoyed the language (minus the vulgarity) and general style of the writing. I just think that the overall product let me down a bit.

2 stars

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