The author is one of my sister’s four daughters, and it is for that reason only I am reviewing the book. Fact is, I read very little fiction these days. The list of worthwhile fiction I have not read and will never read is too long for me to ever address. I sometimes read a novel in order to gain insight to a movie. In the case of this book, I am curious at the efforts of the only close family member to produce a work of length.
This is The Obsession, and I purchased the Kindle edition. It’s Dawn Brotherton’s first of what promises to be a number of successful enterprises. It’s a murder mystery thriller, set within military life. I’m not going to detail the plot. I’m looking at this as an assessment of a first-time author’s efforts. But an overview is necessary.
The story begins with a police investigation of a murder. A single woman, living alone, has been attacked and killed in her home by a person unknown. If you are starting to think this will be about a serial killer, you are right.
Jackie Austin is a young Air Force Lieutenant, working as a missile specialist at a base in Missouri. This should bring back memories to a lot of us. ICBMs, tipped with nuclear warheads and kept ready in below-ground silos scattered about the country, kept the balance of power between the United States and the Soviet Union for decades. This setting is crucial to the plot, because these missile specialists were carefully vetted individuals upon which the nation placed it’s utmost trust. The specter of a stalker who murders women in this context injects critical tension into the plot.
It takes only a few turns of the page to realize that Lieutenant Austin fits the profile of the stalker’s targets. She is young, single, attractive, and lives alone in a house she has purchased in a quiet neighborhood. That she may become a target is made apparent through a series of harassing phone calls, home intrusions, mash notes delivered by mail or left at the house.
At a certain point the reader is given a veiled view of the killer, who remains a mystery until the very last. Disturbing and multiple profiles are revealed, leaving the reader to wonder if they fit any of the men in Jackie’s life.
Without revealing any secrets, readers need to know that Jackie prevails in the end, using a bit of detective work to unmask the killer and bring him to justice. The book is about what happens in the meantime.
Now for some critical assessment. I compare the first few chapters of the book with the initial work of another successful author, that being Erle Stanley Gardner. Gardner was a California attorney before he turned to writing. His first novel was The Case of the Velvet Claws, which I reviewed for much the same reason I am reviewing this book. As expected, Gardner took some time to find his feet as a fiction writer, and it shows in this early work.
In my niece’s first work, finding her footing amounts to providing a level of maturity to her character. Jackie Austin’s interactions with her friends, associates at the base, men in her life, her immediate family, remind the reader more of life back in junior high rather than adults of demonstrated maturity. The good news is that as the book progresses, Jackie matures and so does the writing. It is as though the author is finding her way at first before hitting her stride. The pace quickens and the drama builds.
Reading about the serial killer, I had to reflect back on the Thomas Harris works I have read. Both Black Sunday and Red Dragon involve damaged characters who morph into instruments of atrocity. Black Sunday was made into a film of the same name, and Red Dragon was the basis for the first Hannibal Lecter movie, Manhunter. Dawn Brotherton does readers service by having a go at developing the warped characters that appear in the book, and there are more than two.
At another level, this is an Agatha Christie novel in the way Jackie Austin throws off her self-doubts, sets her goals, and unmasks the killer. Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie was born to wealth and privilege and published her first detective story, The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1919. Her second was The Secret Adversary, for which I have not written a review. However, that early work by this most successful of writers reflects the same issues with character development as The Obsession. A for-instance:
“Tommy, you’re stony!”
“Not a bit of it,” declared Tommy unconvincingly. “Rolling in cash.”
“You always were a shocking liar,” said Tuppence severely, “though you did once persuade Sister Greenbank that the doctor had ordered you beer as a tonic, but forgotten to write it on the chart. Do you remember?”
Tommy chuckled. “I should think I did! Wasn’t the old cat in a rage when she found out? Not that she was a bad sort really, old Mother Greenbank! Good old hospital— demobbed like everything else, I suppose?”
Christie, Agatha. Secret Adversary (pp. 3-4). . Kindle Edition.
That was our introduction to the girl and boy protagonists in this early work. Needless to say, Dame Agatha’s style matured in subsequent works, and so did her characters.
I know the author as a deeply committed Christian, and her religiosity shows through at points in the book:
Jackie nestled closer into Stan’s arms. “I do. My boss ordered me to talk to someone, but he didn’t say I had to go to Mental Health. I figured it was time I gave God another chance. Doing it on my own obviously wasn’t working.”
“Wait a minute… did Chaplain Vandesteeg help you hatch this plot to catch that psycho?” She could hear the hidden resentment in Stan’s voice.
Brotherton, Dawn. The Obsession (Jackie Austin Mysteries Book 1) (Kindle Locations 3227-3230). Blue Dragon Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Significant authors have written with their religious commitments as part of the theme. Besides possibly C.S. Lewis, whom I have never read, there is G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton wrote The Man Who Knew Too Much, which title but not plot was the inspiration for two Alfred Hitchcock movie plots. He also wrote the Father Brown books, which naturally have religion woven into their fabric:
When this spirit of the captain spoke in Valentin he was obeyed like a bugle. Dr. Simon went through to the armoury and routed out Ivan, the public detective’s private detective. Galloway went to the drawing-room and told the terrible news tactfully enough, so that by the time the company assembled there the ladies were already startled and already soothed. Meanwhile the good priest and the good atheist stood at the head and foot of the dead man motionless in the moonlight, like symbolic statues of their two philosophies of death.
Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith). The Innocence of Father Brown (p. 22). . Kindle Edition.
Hint: it was the atheist who did the killing and for religious reasons.
Speaking as one who has never published a short story, much less a novel, I will recommend that if there is a major aspect of a subjects character introduced into a story plot, that aspect needs to be worked into the plot in a major way. Else its introduction may be seen as a mission statement of the author, not relevant to the story.
What can I say more. The author is family. Earlier this year we had the pleasure of attending her retirement from the service, giving our scattered relations the opportunity to get together for the first time in decades. Here are some photos:
The author at her retirement ceremony at the Pentagon.
At the White House. Most of the people in this photograph are descendants of John Freeman Blanton, born in 1867 in Johnson County, Texas.
Dawn’s first book includes her mother as one of the characters. This is spooky, as I can hear my sister’s voice as I read these passages. It’s a problem with reviewing a work too close to home.