by Elizabeth Gunn
Published by Walker & Company
256 pages, 2002
Buy it online
Reviewed by Anthony Rainone
Fans of the police procedural enjoy reading about crime-solving methods in accurate detail and with a good amount of up-to-date police terminology. The author of this type of subgenre work must be mindful of the forest for the trees, however. Beyond regaling the reader with terms such as AFIS (Automated Fingerprint Identification Systems) or with forensic matters like the use of super-glue fumes to find prints, there must be careful attention paid to plausibility of plot, characters that matter and the manipulation of suspense. If such attention is not paid, the author can end up with a book like Seventh-Inning Stretch, the fifth in the Jake Hines series by Elizabeth Gunn, which is little more than a middling disappointment.
First introduced to readers in Triple Play (1997) as a detective in the Rutherford (Minnesota) Police Department, Hines is now the captain and chief of the Detectives Division. Taking advantage of a rare lull in Rutherford's street crime, in Seventh-Inning Stretch Hines decides to reopen and assign some "cold cases" to members of his detective squads -- all except Lieutenant Kevin Evjan of Property Crimes, who's busy chasing down a con-artist team that's been running a series of scams in town and angering residents. Before Hines and his detectives can even blow the dust off the cold-case files, though, two men are found murdered and stuffed inside a trash container in a downtown alley behind a Chinese restaurant. Both men were severely beaten and one had been raped. More ominously, the trash container turns out to be the property of one of Hines' detectives, Bo Dooley. Dooley is immediately suspect, not only because it's his container, but because his wife is a recovering heroin addict, with her own dark and murky past. Hines believes initially that if these dead men were somehow a threat to Dooley's wife, Bo would kill them. Hines quickly goes to work organizing his crew into a cohesive crime-busting unit to apprehend whoever was responsible for these slayings, but all the while keeping a close eye on Dooley.
Gunn is a diligent researcher and a competent writer eager to display the realities of police work. She has a smooth prose that helps her depict the painstaking tasks that occupy most detectives trying to solve a murder -- tasks that often are ignored on TV cop shows or in other novels. Unfortunately, somewhere in this process of being truthful to the subject matter, she forgets that she's also supposed to be writing a fictional work. The result is an almost total lack of tension in Stretch and passages that are tedious. For example, Hines' promotion to captain means that he's saddled with more of a managerial role and less of an investigative one. As Rutherford's chief of police, Frank McCafferty, tells him, "You've got good people, Jake. Now, to make this bigger crew work, you need to delegate authority so you can supervise." Unfortunately, Gunn illustrates this all too implicitly. What the reader finds here are excessive details about the giving of orders, finishing paperwork, meetings with city officials, using steno pools, the placement of offices and chairs and other minutiae that effectively choke off any suspense related to the case at hand. Rather than feeling the exhilaration of hunting down a serial killer, I felt like I had put in a day at the office.
Any gasp of intrigue that might have survived the preponderance of Hines' multi-tasking administrative duties is extinguished by the minor parallel story of Hines' efforts to renovate his 90-year-old farmhouse, which he owns and lives in with his girlfriend, Trudy Hanson. Time and again, Gunn's storyline cuts away from the murder investigation, only so the reader can be told about broken heaters, bad roofs, muddy fields and bills. Inexplicably and perhaps most frustrating, as the murder case is nearing its end, and with the identity of the killers still being hotly pursued, the reader is taken to Hines' farmhouse while he creates a garden for Trudy:
I marked out the edges of the garden Trudy wanted, took a deep breath and pressed the power button. The machine had torque to spare, but I managed to stay out of its way while it made short work of a big patch of sod.
While this may be an attempt to show that cops have personal lives, it nonetheless is bland and distracting and inappropriately placed.
Despite book-jacket descriptions to the contrary, Jake Hines is a nice guy with few hard edges. He's likable enough, though over time he's become a dull character with nary a vice. And what I have found disturbing throughout this series, is his voice. Hines is a big fan of nature, which is fine and makes sense, given that he lives in Minnesota. But he waxes constantly about the environment. ("I doused the radio, rolled my window down, and sucked in a big, delicious noseful of Minnesota in May," he says at one point in this story. "Lilacs, fresh-turned earth, sheep manure, and grass cuttings; heaven should only have it so good.") And while most readers are weary of the stereotypical divorced, alcoholic detective, Gunn has gone in the opposite direction with a decidedly unmasculine tone, demonstrated in passages such as this one: "We'll eat a nice big Kamloops dinner and then sit on a rotten log in the moonlight, and do a lot of kissing and giggling." I had hoped that as Gunn's series went on, Hines would sound less like my grandmother and more like an experienced male detective investigating homicides. But in Seventh-Inning Stretch, he starts out almost immediately with this overly feminine description of his return home to meet Trudy:
She handed me a beer when I walked in the door, and led me out in the dusk to the place on the south side of our ninety-year-old farmhouse where she'd found pink tips of peony shoots pushing up through the remains of last year's bushes. A major benefit of our first spring in this old yard was turning out to be these sweet surprises coming up out of the earth, like welcome notes.
Sweet surprises? Being that Hines is the protagonist of a police procedural, it would be more appropriate if Gunn infused him with higher levels of testosterone and laid off the smarmy observations. Yet on his way to investigate the latest double homicide (it seems that Rutherford only has multiple homicides), Hines can't resist himself, noting that "Pink buds pushed stickily out of tree branches; pussy willows blossomed fat and furry by creeks ... and once I heard a meadowlark in the field." Such a setup puts the reader in the mood for tea and crumpets, not for bloody bodily remains.
Hines' supporting cast includes detectives Ray Bailey, who heads the People Crimes division, veteran Lou French and Rosie Doyle, also of Peoples Crimes, plus coroner Adrian Andreyevich Pokornoskovic (aka "Pokey") and the four-person crew of the BCA (Bureau of Criminal Apprehension). Each of these players, as well as more minor police characters, makes several entrances throughout the novel, which gives it a Hill Street Blues-ish chaos. With so many people and activities to contend with in a single story, it's not surprising that protagonist Jake Hines should become somewhat lost in the mix. Worse, though, is that there just aren't enough personality definitions between members of this series' company. Coroner Pokey is unusual and funny, and Bo Dooley is sufficiently edgy and interesting. But everyone else is a mere background figure, each of them limited to trace distinctions. We're told, for instance, that Lou French is retiring and that Kevin Evjan is excited at the prospect of heading his own squad. Yet too often, one character sounds just like another.
Dooley is perhaps the most well-rounded secondary performer. Working as an undercover vice cop, he runs drug busts for Hines' Detectives Division. Besides his recovering addict wife, Dooley has a small child, who has seen her share of tough times. That Dooley is a suspect in the deaths of the two men found in the alley is supposed to be a red herring and a way to infuse intrigue into the investigation. However, the effort is amateurish. Why would an experienced cop use his own garbage receptacle if he committed such murders? When Hines talks to Bo about the trash can, the passages are vague and confusing:
I'm doing the best I can for you, Bo, I said, but I need you to quit treating me like the enemy now. If you want to help yourself, you've got to help me.
Why is it so hard for him to say, "Hey, I have no idea how they ended up in my trash can. Someone must have stolen it." In fact, later on in the passage, after Bo finally admits he's clueless about the misuse of his garbage container, Hines himself says, "If it's as simple as that, Bo, why is this so hard?" My sentiments exactly.
At various points in Gunn's new novel, the writing becomes sloppy as information is repeated, characters are retold facts that they seemingly don't remember, and minutiae regains centerstage. Hines explains each new detail of the unfolding case to Frank McCafferty, and every time he informs the reader, "I ... then went to tell the chief what we were doing." Gunn is also given to using terminology ad nauseam ("Identi-Kits" and "Attempt to Locate" forms are two favorites), and her description of DNA extraction and replication is more than a little confusing.
After laboring through much of Seventh-Inning Stretch, the connections to be made between the con-artist scam, the double murders and a cold-case homicide involving the killing of a liquor store owner are cleared up amid a blend of implausibilities and too-convenient strokes of good luck. And the dubious turns don't end there. After one of the murdered men in the trash container is identified as part of the con-artist crew, his remaining partners -- a woman, a man and female twin children -- are picked up, the woman having been spotted at a ballgame selling fake marijuana. The dead man is later implicated in the liquor store murder from 1996, because he kept the murder weapon hidden in his home. Why would he do this for so many years, even though he never used the weapon again? "I expect it's his favorite thing," says detective Ray Bailey. Given the increasing sophistication in crime writing today, Gunn simply has to do better than that simplistic and unlikely motivation. Equally weak is a twist that has the female con artist faking a suicide attempt and then walking out of a jail infirmary. How she manages to do all of this is never explained. And after all of her determination to get the techniques of police procedure correct, Gunn tries to cut corners when it comes to legal procedures. Several times in this tale, one of the con artists asks for an attorney, which by law should end any questioning. But instead, the cops tell the suspect that "pro bono lawyers hate to work weekends." That may well be so; however, court-appointed attorneys are required to come when needed, and that's exactly the type of lawyer this suspect would be assigned. What's more ridiculous, though the cops ignore this man's request for a lawyer, they then fail to videotape the confession he so easily offers up.
Finally, the double homicide at the root of this tale and the identity of the second man in the trash can are solved not through any dogged efforts by Hines' Detectives Division, but instead, through an "urban myth" that one of the detectives overhears from a street snitch. This "myth" suddenly makes it obvious why the murder victims were found in Dooley's garbage can. In other words, the reader has to put up with the intricate investigative machinations of the Rutherford PD for chapter after chapter after chapter, only to be punished in the end by the imposition of an unlikely sequence of events and sudden dismissals of fact.
Up to now, the Jake Hines books have been published by Walker & Company. Sadly, that house is closing its mystery line. If Gunn's series is picked up by another publisher, one can only hope that the author will receive greater guidance on how to make her next installment more credible and engaging. Over the course of five novels, Jake Hines has not become richer in character, but thinner. What was promising in the first book has been squandered since. | July 2002