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By Michael McGarrity
Scribner, June 1998 HC, (320 pp.)

Reviewed by Anthony Smith (5/98)

When all done, my impression on Serpent Gate: Not bad. Pretty Good. But I'm still not sure why the author has been garnering such rave reviews lately, because I have big problems with the writing in general here. Then again, maybe I'm just too picky.

There are some interesting things happening in this third mystery from McGarrity, the latest in the Kevin Kerney series (Tularosa, Mexican Hat), mostly with a few well drawn characters and the importance of the setting, New Mexico. But even though this is a good cop yarn (not exactly a mystery; we know who did it very early on, so the mechanics of following the cops as they figure out what the reader already knows is what carries the book), the writing is a bit wooden, but it has come along some since Tularosa.

Here's what's good: Kerney is an interesting, sympathetic character, and is surrounded by friends and co-workers that are believable and interesting. McGarrity begins with a fifty-something page section that follows Kerney on one investigation that will weave it's way into the rest of the book, even though it stands somewhat apart. It's a very good piece of work. The remainder of the book was not bad, involving an art heist and the details of it, but nothing special either.

My problems with Serpent Gate: Almost all come from the writing, but a few from the plotting as well. The number one thing is the terrible wooden dialogue that pervades the entire book (and most potboiler best sellers as well, but...). Characters say things to each other just to give the reader information, so everything comes across as fake, or 'constructed' may be a better word, but it's the same thing. That takes the reader out of the story, since so much of the investigation depends on conversation. And the few times McGarrity tries his hand at dialogue off the subject, for character development, I suppose, it still seems unreal, for the reader's sake alone. I hope the author learns more about writing good dialogue before his next book, as that could elevate his work from "Not bad" to "Very good."

I've never been to the US Southwest, but I don't get an impression of it from this book. Having read other work about the same general area, this doesn't rank up there with great writing about place. It's there, but for some reason, it sits in the background like a mural instead of coming to life as actual landscape.

I am also not a big fan of the powerful untouchable Mexican drug lord character, who will surely be seen again in the series. This is such a cliched character, not at all realistic or fun or interesting. This one isn't any different than other ones I've read about or seen in movies. My advice to Mr. McGarrity here is to just kill the guy and dig much deeper for the villianous traits in humanity, and then Kerney would have some match on his hands.

I actually enjoyed some of it, but the problems I found in Serpent Gate seemed too large to gloss over. They jumped out at me, and I am surprised at how McGarrity's work gets reviewed as well as it does. With so many high quality writers working in the cop novel these days, I don't think this series rises above the rest, but it could. There are flashes of great work here, and I would wholly encourage the author to go deeper, break the stereotypes, and reward us with great books he seems capable of producing.

All the hints are there in the first section of Serpent Gate.

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