Sunday, June 17, 2007

Debut Mystery: Michelle Gagnon, THE TUNNELS

A "first mystery" from a little-known author has the perils and pleasures of any high-skills gamble and risk: Will it work? Does it read well? How about publisher promotion? And if the author "has what it takes," will it still be there for book two and book three? At least a dozen times, I've read a debut offering and said "Gee, this is pretty good stuff" -- and neglected to nail down a pristine first edition of the first book of what would turn out to be a remarkable author just moving into a long streak of growth.

Having a first book emerge in paperback only -- no hardcover -- makes the collector's task tougher. In general, a PBO (Paperback Original) isn't going to attain much value. Fabulous illustrations, like those on some of the 1930s through 1960s noir, can change the story. But today, those are rare.

So Michelle Gagnon's starting mystery, THE TUNNELS, is going to be a reader's choice rather than a "collectible," I believe. The publishing imprint for the June 2007 release is MIRA, which turns out to be the single-title imprint offered by Harlequin, that greatly expanded Canadian firm better known for its romance. In fact, the book doesn't even say Harlequin on it anywhere. Good thing! If it did, I might have skipped reading it.

And that would have been a shame.

Gagnon's FBI thriller, set on the campus of a prestigious New England college (like Wesleyan, where she took her own degree), takes its title from the 1800s-era underground tunnels that crisscross the campus and even run to the river. A gruesome serial killer pattern escalates, and Kelly Jones tackles it with her customary riveted attention and round-the-clock determination. She's an FBI Special Agent, but also a crime victim whose past compels her to battle the darkness without giving herself any sort of break. Heaven help us if this is a true-to-life picture of women in the Bureau; their shelf life won't be long.

But it makes a great character trait, and Jones's partners in the investigation, two men who pick vastly different ways to assist her in the hunt for the killer, add the necessary personal depth that pulls a mystery away from "potboiler" status and into something worth re-reading.

There are small flaws that a more seasoned thriller writer (with a top-notch editor) might avoid, and these, along with an ending that's a bit too sweet and light, betray the novice author. (A bicycle lies abandoned on a front lawn, when it should have disappeared with the child riding it. A historic comment muddles its decades. Each young police officer confronted with a nasty kill "heaves." You know.) Still, I found that even on the second reading, I didn't want interruptions. I wanted to pay increasing attention to the twists, the dialogue (which is far above beginner level), and the potential metaphors involved. No, the tunnels aren't as terrifying as the ones that haunt Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch. And the forensics ease into place, instead of blasting bloodily like a Patricia Cornwall development. Nevertheless, the solid reality of the college utility tunnels heightens the sense of threat.

Here's a sample of the level of detail:

"God, I'm getting sick of this street," Jake said darkly as they pulled up to the curb.
Kelly didn't answer. The early morning light reflected gold off the front windows, blocking the view inside. Two orderlies sat on an empty gurney parked [on] the lawn next to the walkway. She nodded to them as she strolled past. A single deputy asked their names, noted them in his log, then stepped aside to let them in the front door. All of the lights were on, illuminating a thin layer of dust she hadn't noticed the other night. The house was weighed down by an eerie hush that she immediately recognized, the calm that descended after violence. Through the kitchen door she saw Kim, her face buried in the chest of a uniformed office, sobbing. Kelly set her jaw and headed upstairs.

In perhaps the highest compliment a thriller can rate, I found the darkness outside my house uncomfortable, in the first few hours after finishing my second read of THE TUNNELS. Danger seemed more likely to hide there, in spite of the silently flashing fireflies and the sleeping households nearby.

Gagnon has a second Kelly Jones book scheduled for April 2008: BONEYARD. So I predict that copies of first printing of THE TUNNELS will become harder and harder to get. With author appearances this summer at significant shops and conferences, including the 2007 Thrillerfest, I recommend getting a fresh, signed copy of THE TUNNELS as soon as possible. Michelle Gagnon is worth reading and following.

Speaking of which: For more details from the author, including her scheduled events, check the web site -- . And for further insight into the MIRA books phenom, take a look at .

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