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Solid mystery hurt by poor character development

Smoke & Mirrors
Smoke & Mirrors
By John Ramsey Miller

Dell: 2008

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This review first appeared in the April 20, 2008 issue of the North County Times.

John Ramsey Miller's latest thriller isn't particularly well-written, and yet it's a very solid story and one that's hard to put down. The seeming contradiction comes down to the fact that while Miller has crafted a heck of a story, he's just not told it as well as we're used to from our other top-rank writers.

Issued straight to paperback, "Smoke & Mirrors" features previous Miller protagonist Winter Massey, a former U.S. marshal who finds himself targeted by a one-time Eastern European assassin. But Massey isn't very well fleshed-out and remains almost two-dimensional. If the main character is rather flat, you can imagine how well-developed the rest of the characters are. Or aren't.

This superficial treatment of the people populating Miller's tale reminds us more than a little of the stereotypes that live in Dale Brown's Air Force thrillers.

And Miller's dialogue is on a par with his character development – no real surprise, as the two go hand in hand.

Yet despite all this grousing, the book is a taut little cat-and-mouse between lawman and killer. Unlike many popular mysteries, in which the story line stretches credulity beyond any limitations of chance or even rationality, the basic pitch here – of a federal marshal targeted by a man he once hunted – remains in the realm of the believable.

Dragged into a murder investigation while on vacation with his family, Massey quickly realizes that the killing of a young black woman on a rural estate in Mississippi was really a message to him. Muddying the waters a bit is a struggle over land ownership – land a gambling casino wants for a massive expansion. Land the casino's owners and management are willing to kill over.

Even as the body count stacks up, Miller never lowers the tale into the kind of blood fetish so many mysteries exhibit. Rather, he takes a sort of Chuck Norris approach to the violence, seeing it as a regrettable necessity to his storytelling but not something to relish.

As mystery/thriller novels go, "Smoke & Mirrors" is worthwhile for the twists and turns of plot that hold your interest. But it's not the sort of A-list classic its story could have been, simply because Winter Massey is no Joe Leaphorn or Jack Ryan. Miller hasn't given us enough to really care about in his lead character, and without that, it's a nice enough book but not one that will cause you to go out and purchase the entire series.