Lot’s Return to Sodom/Sandra Brannan
On Saturday I spent a lot of money on books at the Four-Eyed Frog and I say that with pride. I bought a Captain Alatriste novel, Pirates of the Levant, the latest Alan Bradley, a LeCarre, and a strange little book called Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, because I couldn’t resist the title and the use of weird old photographs throughout the book. To top it off I bought the beautifully illustrated, wildly irreverent, proudly vulgar and hugely funny not-children’s book Go the F**k to Sleep.
That should have been enough, but on Sunday I went back and bought a mystery that had caught my eye the day before. It’s called Lot’s Return to Sodom.
This is the second book of a series with a woman main character named Liv Bergen. Liv is not in law enforcement and seems to be in the Jessica Fletcher mode of detective. The writer, Sandra Brannan has had an interesting life and puts a lot of that into her fictional world according to the jacket flap.
The book is probably interesting but I may never know because I stopped at page 47.
Review websites have an acronym, DNF, “Did Not Finish.” Lot’s Return to Sodom has, at least temporarily, fallen in to that category for me.
I found the opening sections of this book implausible. Brannan alternates POV by chapters, not an uncommon choice, but some of the chapters are narrated first-person by Liv. I tend to see this as a clue that the writer is struggling. She wants an intimate narrative voice, but knows she can’t get the necessary information to the reader if she stays in one POV. There’s nothing wrong with alternating, but why not cultivate a close, immediate third-person POV for your main character, so that it isn’t jarring?
In the first section that is narrated by Liv, Chapter Three, she is riding in a truck with her brother, back home in the town she grew up in, where she is recovering from wounds she got when she was attacked by a murderer in the first book. There is a huge biker rally going on, which we know from the earlier chapters, and Lucifer’s Lot, a bad gang, is there in force. Liv’s brother stops at his factory to go talk to someone, leaving Liv in the truck. While she is waiting, a group of bikers appears, with a young woman in tow. Liv ducks down behind the seat and hides while they engage in group sex with the woman. At first it seems unsavoury but consensual–but then the woman collapses. Another biker arrives who says she is dead. Liv can hear all of this. Crouching on the floor of her brother’s truck, she scrambles for his cell phone and calls 911. The dispatcher says it will be a while because there is a lot of activity. Liv says okay and the dispatcher hangs up. Really? The woman might not be dead—and they hang up? Presumably they dispatch an ambulance or something. Liv passes the time by listening to every line of dialogue and taking pictures of the bikers with her brother’s phone-camera. Then the bikers ride away as sirens approach. End of chapter.
In the next chapter Liv walks into her parents’ house and makes herself a tuna sandwich. She reflects on how she didn’t say anything to her brother about the bikers or the possibly not-dead woman on the drive home. Apparently, they left before emergency vehicles arrived, and Liv never even got out of the truck to check on the victim. The bikers had gone and there would have been no danger.
Liv is supposed to look brave and resourceful in the truck, I think, having the wit to take pictures and call 911 instead of just being terrified. All of that is undercut, however, by what appears to be unbelievable callousness. The scene in the truck is already implausible, though, because the writer chooses to report every line of dialogue, with the bikers calling each other by their biker names, just so Liv can capture it all. This first-person narration is not visceral. Is Liv afraid? I’d be. Are her hands shaking? Is her heart racing? Does her stomach hurt? None of that is mentioned. Instead, she remembers her mother’s purse, that was like Mary Poppins’s handbag and has whatever you need in it when you need it (because Liv thinks she need a Sig Sauer at this moment).
With the alternating POV, Brannan could simply have inserted a chapter from someone else between the bikers leaving and Liv’s sandwich, providing some distance and letting the reader fill in for themselves what Liv and her brother might have done back at the scene. She does have to be careful if the woman in the alley with the bikers is also the body Liv is called about later, which it certainly seems to be, but that could be managed.
It’s possible that all these little wrinkles are ironed out, and the story goes great guns for a blazing, suspenseful finish, but I am probably not going to stick around to find out. Right now, at least, Liv Bergen is competing with too many compelling characters in too many other books.