Sunday, February 24, 2013

Book Review: Diagnosis: Murder - The Death Merchant by Lee Goldberg (Diagnosis: Murder #2)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Strong plot from start to finish
Cons: Amanda and Jesse made minor characters
The Bottom Line:
A fast paced thrill ride
As Doctor Sloan tries to stop
Another killer

A Thrill Ride Starring Dr. Mark Sloan

Diagnosis: Murder was never what you would consider a thriller. The TV show starring Dick van Dyke occasionally had some more suspenseful episodes. But most of the time, it was a straightforward mystery. Not so with The Death Merchant. While not a full out thriller, this is much closer to a thriller then a traditional mystery.

Let me give those unfamiliar with the TV show a bit of background. (And if you already know the characters, feel free to skip on down to the next paragraph.) As I mentioned, Dick van Dyke lead the cast as Dr. Mark Sloan, a doctor with a gift for solving crimes. He works as a consultant to the police, most of the time helping his son Steve (played by Dick's son Barry) who works homicide for the LAPD. Rounding out the characters were Amanda Bentley, a coroner, and Jesse Travis, a young medical student the group befriends.

This book actually starts out in Hawaii. Mark and Steve are enjoying a vacation in Hawaii. Well, Steve is, but Mark is missing his work and solving mysteries. While Steve sight-sees, Mark spends his time helping fellow guests with their minor injuries.

It's through his beach side medical work that Mark befriends Danny Royal, a local who just swam through a school of jelly fish. When Danny is attacked by a shark the next day, Mark is shocked. But when the body is recovered, Mark suspects that it was really murder. Steve, still trying to vacation, is reluctantly drawn into the investigation. Mark and Steve are surprised to learn that Danny was not who they thought he was. In fact, they don't know who he was. Can they solve this bizarre crime in time to stop the killer from striking again, even after they return to Los Angeles?

Now I should mention that this book was written by Lee Goldberg, a former producer of the show. As a result, this book captures the feel of the show perfectly. The story might hold more of a ticking clock element then normal, but I could still picture it as an unaired episode. The book takes a chapter or two to set up the story, but once it does, it takes off and never looks back. And the plotting is brilliant. I never saw any of it coming.

Adding to the suspense are scenes written from the killer's point of view. They aren't a gimmick, but truly add to the overall story and make things much tighter.

In my mind, this show was always an ensemble effort. Yes, Dick van Dyke was the star, but the other characters got plenty of time, and I loved watching all four interact. The book really focuses on Mark and Steve, however. Even when we get back to LA, Amanda and Jesse aren't as big a part of the story as I would have liked. But this is my only real complaint with the book. And they do have some memorable scenes. The first scene with all four characters, set at favorite hangout BBQ Bob's, was a riot, for example.

The writing is still a bit of a mixed bag here. The dialog and action sparkle. But when Mr. Goldberg tries to get introspective and let the characters reflect on themselves, it gets stiff. Since Mr. Goldberg has a background in TV, that dichotomy makes sense. And it is something that smooths itself out as the series progresses. Frankly, it's something to notice only in passing as the book is still a fast read.

The Death Merchant will please any mystery fan. So don't let your familiarity with Diagnosis: Murder dictate whether you read the book or not. It will be over before you know it, and you'll be looking for more.

And when you start looking for more, check out the Diagnosis: Murder novels in order.

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