Let me begin by saying that writing a novel is a terrific achievement. I know, having written one ~ and only one. My hat is off to anyone who can complete a novel.
That said, here is my honest opinion of Flashback to the Dragon, a psycho-killer murder-mystery with a paranormal twist by Terri L. Powers, which I finished reading last week.
Characters: Nate Cliffton is a police detective hunting a serial killer — one who likes to torture his young woman victims. Blonde-haired, blue-eyed Nate seems like a typical hard-boiled cop, except for being gay:
Cliffton knew he had to play it straight and mainstream at work. No one could know that he found Tommy appealing, not Nadine, the secretary from the second floor with the hourglass figure and short skirts. The guys in his office were merciless and cruel when they got wind of an alternative lifestyle, whether it was a coworker, witness, or suspect. He wanted to be able to do his job, a job that he enjoyed and was good at, one that gave him a lot of personal satisfaction. He didn’t want to be punished for what he did during his personal time, so he leered at the ladies when the other guys did, laughed at their sexist jokes, and generally tried to fit in.
The secret lifestyle adds extra tension and pressure to the story, though Terri amps the pressure pretty high to begin with in the opening pages. There, she introduces us to her killer through the eyes of a victim.
Raping her had been bad enough; she still felt sore all over from that humiliation. But what scared Carmen more than the physical violation was the way he would gently stroke her cheek and call her Mommy with an expression of love on his face. Then his features would change dramatically, melting from the loving gaze to one of sadistic lust before he cut her flesh, causing more pain than she had ever felt. She begged when he asked her to and asked for forgiveness when he wanted that. This was what she had been taught to do in the self-defense classes: anything to stay alive. But he didn’t in fact want her to participate in the macabre ritual he was acting out.
Nate gets some help in the case from John Carpenter, “dark, soft-spoken and deliberate.” John gains unreliable and generally unwelcome flashes of ESP following a catastrophic auto accident. He can sometimes “see” the past events of a particular area.
A vision of a young woman stabbed to death in an alley leads John to get in touch with Nate. Terri does a nice job with her characters, though, as is often the case, the villain is by far the most vivid.
Plot: Flashback to the Dragon has Detective Nate Cliffton on the trail of the killer. He doesn’t have much time to think about his personal life until reluctant psychic John Carpenter enters the case and offers Nate some important clues in both areas.
Setting: Though the story takes place in Seattle, a lovely and picturesque city, there isn’t much to distinguish the setting from any other generic big city.
What I thought could’ve been done better: I feel Terri missed an opportunity by not adding some Seattle color. As long as the story takes place there, why not show off the sights and sounds? Pike Place Market and the Space Needle are certainly obvious candidates — but why not add some beautiful sea coast scenes, or include some of the moody weather unique to the Pacific Northwest.
Terri also might’ve done more with the possibility and consequences of Nate being outed. It’s our job as authors to make life difficult as possible for our characters. I think Terri gave Nate a bit of a pass in this regard.
Flashback could also have stood a little more attention to active voice and showing-not-telling. For instance: “It was a beautiful morning, promising to be a beautiful day.” Instead of telling, why not show, in active voice, the colors, sounds and smells of the Seattle dawn — “The rising sun lit the east-facing buildings in orange and gold, and the cool morning air smelled of coffee and the sea…”
When we “tell,” we’re asking our readers to do the work that we as authors should have done.
What I thought was good: I know Terri can do a good job of showing — her scenes of helpless victims in the grasp of the murderer are heart- and gut-wrenching. The prolog’s opening scene gives the story momentum that propels it all the way through. It makes up for the minor shortcomings I’ve already mentioned.
When he had roared his last thrust and was done, he flipped the used condom into a corner. She begged him to let her go and promised to forget that the assault ever happened, even introducing herself and letting him know about her dog, Sinjin, at home waiting to be fed and walked around the block, thinking that if she revealed a little about herself, she would no longer be an object in his eyes. Her attempts fell on deaf ears as he grabbed her by the hair and threw her on the metal table, her arms flailing as she fought to get his hands away. Fighting against him proved useless as he fitted the leather straps on her wrists and ankles and gagged her mouth.
The bit with the dog really got me.
Terri also did a great job showing the abused-child background that created the story’s villain:
“See what you’ve done,” she said to the boy, looking through her lashes and flirting. “It’s leather strap time,” she said in a singsong voice as she turned toward her dresser and moved to the bottom drawer.
He shivered when she said the words, and he felt as if there were a fist clenched tight inside his belly. The boy knew what that meant. It meant that Daddy wasn’t here for her; Daddy was here for him. She was only the icing on the cake, and he would be spending the next few hours strapped naked to her four-poster bed doing whatever Daddy wanted and enduring the degradation for which the man had paid to spend time with the boy.
Terri does a nice job humanizing the victims, even the murderer as an abused child, by letting us see what they’re thinking and feeling. Then she lowers the boom.
Her characters, even the minor ones are painted well, with good dialogue and realistic details. Terri succeeded in creating characters I cared about, then put them in awful jeopardy.
Overall: Though Flashback to the Dragon could use a little more attention to active voice and showing-not-telling, it is, nevertheless, a tightly scripted, character-driven and compelling crime thriller. It’s chilling, suspenseful, and in places even breathtaking.
Good job Terri!
And for a sexy superheroine paranormal sci fi romantic adventure thriller, check out my own novel American Goddesses ~ thanks for visiting Honest Indie!