Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Oak Knoll Mystery Series: Books 1 - 3

Deeper Than the Dead (2010)
Book #1

By: Tami Hoag

Genre: Fiction, Suspense, Thriller, Mystery

It is 1985. Behavior analysis and profiling are a fairly new addition to the FBI. Computers are still very expensive and not owned by many small town sheriff’s offices. DNA has barely been discovered and there is little technology to test it. Forensic technology is in the stone age, yet Oak Knoll has a serial killer on the prowl, and they must find out who it is the old fashioned way.

It’s a sunny afternoon when four fifth grade students running through the park woods stumble upon the body of a murder victim. She is the latest in a string of three bodies and a missing person. Detective Tony Mendez has a hunch that this is the work of a serial killer, and calls an old friend, Vince Leone, FBI profiler extraordinaire, to consult. It is as he fears, and he can only hope that he and Vince can find the killer before he or she strikes again.

I really liked the creepiness of the killer. I thought the signature of depriving the victims of sight, speech and hearing was original and scary. I really liked the way a child’s letter of hero worship about his father is interspersed with segments of the killer going through the routine with his latest victim. It is a great way to show that the killer could be anyone, even a devoted family man, and that’s always the scariest thing of all.

I love the character of Anne Navarre. She is fun, witty, and fiercely protective of her students. When she feels one of her students is being abused at home, she steps in. She is there for all of the students who found the body and refuses to allow anyone to push them around or scare them in any way. She’s not afraid to stand up to anyone, especially a misogynistic bully like Frank Farman, and I love that about her.  It is also what attracts Vince toward her. There is a bit of insta-love between the two, as well as a good fifteen to twenty year age difference, but they at least love each other for the right reasons. I read the third book before this one, so I knew where their romance would lead, and I enjoyed watching the slow beginnings.

I felt bad for the kids who found the body. Tommy Crane is a sweet, smart little boy who is often picked on and rarely stands up for himself. He and his friend Wendy were being tormented by Dennis Farman, the class bully, and his little sidekick, Cody. None of these kids have the happiest of home situations, especially Dennis and Tommy. I even felt bad for Dennis when his downward spiral commenced, due to everything he went through at home. Honestly, it was bound to happen, considering what that kid witnessed and dealt with on a daily basis.

I swear, there must be something in the water in Oak Knoll that produces awful parents. Other than Sara, Wendy’s mother, everyone has at least one crappy parental figure. Tommy’s mother is a raging, narcissistic control freak, who cares more that he missed his piano lesson than that he just stumbled upon a dead body in the park. She drugs him to make him sleep, screams at anyone who crosses her, and goes into spastic rages for little to no reason. Dennis’s father, Frank, is an abusive, misogynistic jerk who happens to work for the Sherriff’s department. He thinks all women are whores that are meant to serve men, and that’s exactly how he treats his wife. He beats her and berates her in front of Dennis, who, in turn, begins to believe that all women are stupid useless cows, only good for cooking food and having sex. Even Anne’s father is a complete prick, picking her apart constantly.

While I find the character of Franny amusing, I do feel he screams “GAY CLICHÉ!” He’s well-dressed, loves kids, is effeminate, loves fashion, etc. Every time I read a line of his dialogue, the cliché “gay lisp” would run through my head. I feel he’s a little too out there and obnoxiously flamboyant, hitting every gay cliché character trait out there. I think he would have been a better character if he was more subtle, not constantly reminding the reader that he is gay. We know, but there should be more to a character than clichés surrounding their sexuality.

I did like the overall story. I found the characters likable and the crime interesting. Hoag knows how to create suspense, ending each chapter just so, making me want to keep reading. If I hadn’t read Down the Darkest Road before this, I think I would have been fairly surprised when the killer’s identity was revealed. Hoag peppered in enough red herrings to make it harder to zero in on the actual villain.

Overall, it was a fun, suspenseful read. Aside from the cliché gay character and everyone’s parents being despicable, the mystery is solid and the villain is creepy.


Secrets to the Grave (2011)
Book #2

By: Tami Hoag

Genre: Fiction, Mystery, Thriller, Suspense

A year after the See No Evil murders, a young mother is found brutally murdered in her own home. The only witness to the crime is the victim’s small daughter, Haley – who also suffered injuries in the attack and remains traumatized. Enter Anne Leone (previously Anne Navarre) to help Haley through her trauma and identify the killer. Someone killed Marissa Fordham, but who and why? The investigation digs up many secrets along the way, secrets that give many motive for murder.

I found this mystery to be just as intriguing as the last one – maybe even more so because I didn’t know the identity of the killer before reading it. I really wanted to learn who killed Marissa, who seemed like such a great person – loving and friendly, a great mother. I also felt for Haley, the daughter left behind by the tragedy, and hoped that she would find happiness with a family that would love her.

I liked how Hoag, once again, led me down a road of twists and turns, introducing suspects here and there, making it hard to decide who the real villain was. Marissa’s best friend is also attacked – but is her attack related to Marissa’s death or based on something else altogether? There is also a subplot including Dennis Farman, his life in the psychiatric hospital and his visits with Anne.

The returning characters are as great as always. Anne Navarre married Vince Leone between Book #1 and this one, and she has left teaching to finish her schooling in psychology and work with children.  She is still as strong willed and feisty as ever, standing her ground to protect herself and any child in her care. Vince has fully retired as an FBI profiler, but still entertains speaking engagements and consults on murder cases. The two are ready to create a family together.

Tony begins to fall for Sara Morgan, Wendy’s mother, who is finally on the verge of divorcing her cheating husband. However, while I love Tony as a detective, he did annoy me a lot in his obsession with pinning the murder on Sara’s soon-to-be ex husband, Steve, and harassing the man. As much as the guy was a jerk and a bad husband, and as much as he deserved to be punched in the face, Tony went out of his way to make this guy’s life uncomfortable with no substantial evidence. That was not okay with me. Tony, you’re better than that!  

As for new characters, I found Gina to be annoying at first, but she proves her strength when she is abducted and left for dead. Haley is just adorable, and despite my knowing where she ends up due to reading Book #3 before hand, I was still incredibly anxious for her during custody meetings. I absolutely hated Milo Bordain, the older woman of wealth who claims to be Marissa’s benefactor and substitute mother-figure. Mrs. Bordain is self-righteous and self-centered, the entire world has to stop when she commands it. She always gets what she wants, and she wants Haley even though she doesn’t know the first thing about child development. She throws her weight around or temper tantrums when she cannot get her way. I wanted to jump in the book and throttle her!

The story was paced perfectly and, once again, Hoag demonstrates her talent for leaving a cliffhanger at the end of the chapter and forcing you to read on. The only thing that bothered me was the repeated detail of the bullet lodged in Vince’s brain. We know it’s there, it doesn’t need to be shoved down our throats. Otherwise, it is another fast-paced, interesting mystery story.

Overall, the story is gripping, fast-paced and keeps the reader hooked until the final pages. Other than a few minor annoyances, the book was well-written and enjoyable.


Down the Darkest Road (2011)
Book #3

By: Tami Hoag

Genre: Mystery, Suspense, Thriller

It has been four years since Leslie Lawton vanished on her way home from a softball game. Four years and not a trace of her has been found. Her mother, Lauren, while still not giving up hope that her daughter’s disappearance will one day be solved, has packed up younger daughter, Leah, and moved to Oak Knoll, California. Unfortunately, the man Lauren suspects abducted Leslie has also recently moved to town, and his sights might be set on Leah.

I really wanted to like Lauren but I just couldn’t bring myself to do so. I understand that she’s grieving both the loss of her eldest daughter and her husband, but she does have a young daughter to parent, and she’s not doing the greatest job. She doesn’t take care of herself, doesn’t eat, and drinks all the time. She’s paranoid and doesn’t let Leah go hardly anywhere – which is understandable, but hey, Leah is a teenager, let her have some time to be a kid. Also, the twist revelation about Lauren’s intentions in Oak Knoll really angered me, they could have left that part out and I would have been able to like her character a little.

I felt I could relate a bit to Leah, the youngest daughter. I know what it’s like growing up and being the good child, the one who follows all the rules and tries not to make waves; the one who tries not to burden other people with her problems because they’re suffering from the same things. I’ve been there, and it’s rough. It made me so angry that Lauren was so wrapped up in herself and her own pain that she didn’t even notice that her daughter was suffering too. Leah was living in the shadow of an older sibling who wasn’t even around anymore.

I did like the characters that are part of the ongoing series – Tony Mendez and Anne Leone. Both provided as much support and aid to Lauren as they could, especially when the creep who took Leslie begins harassing her at her home in Oak Knoll. With no proof that he was on her property, there’s nothing the police can do to help her, but Mendez looks into her case anyway, and winds up working with Detective Danni Tanner – my favorite female character out of the whole book. She’s confident, tough, quick with the wit, and has a healthy appetite. I enjoyed her immensely and hope to see her in future entries in the Oak Knoll series.

This novel does differ from Hoag’s usual style slightly because we know the identity of the killer/creep the entire time. Normally, Hoag will have the reader see a little bit of the story through the villain’s eyes, but we never know who that villain is until he or she reveals him/herself. Here, we know his identity, and we see the disgusting things he does and thinks about. He’s also incredibly frustrating because he knows that both Lauren and the police are onto him, and he plays cat-and-mouse games with them, hiding behind his rights when they try to retaliate. I wanted to reach into the book and kill him myself.

The twist toward the end caught me a little by surprise, but not entirely. The events of the climax are pretty action packed, and I’ve got to say, Hoag doesn’t let her heroines go down without a fight. These girls are fierce, even when backed into a corner, and there seems to be no way out, they still give it everything they’ve got.

Overall, this is a fun, simple read. If you don’t want the first two books in the Oak Knoll series ruined for you, I would read the series in order. This one gives away the endings to the prior two. While Lauren was a frustrating character, the rest of the colorful cast made up for it. Worth a look if you’re into mystery/thrillers with interesting plot lines and characters who won’t take things laying down.


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