Backstory adds depth while slowing down the primary action

Greg Iles Cemetery Road is a compelling thriller; I’ll stipulate that’s an early opinion inasmuch as I haven’t reached the half-way point yet.

The protagonist, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Marshall McEwan, returns to the small town where he grew up because his father is in ill health and his newspaper business is failing. (I would have used a different name since this one is too close to Marshall McLuhan, the famous media expert and philosopher). Marshall’s old friend is murdered and thus begins the current-day primary plot of the novel.

Having lived in a small town, I understand what Iles is doing when he shows how interconnected people are, including those who leave for the big city and then return. There are many kinds of loyalties and associations (including a former love interest) that make solving the murder about as tricky and running through a minefield.

The book has great depth in the development of its characters and is a page-turner when Marshall and others are up against entrenched and hostile movers and shakers who consider that murder to be a benefit to their business interests. The problems begin when the backstory segments get too lengthy; for example, Marshall was a reporter in Iraq, embedded with a group run by another long-time friend. But, my view is that when a description of what happened in Iraq runs to 16 pages, the backstory has run amok.

Suddenly, we’re in a different novel while the main story is put on hold. I think the Iraq relationship of two primary characters could have been explained in several paragraphs rather than taking us on such a long diversion. And, this is not the only time such a diversion happens. My cynical side says that without these diversions, the story would be pretty slim if it stuck to solving the murder.

I don’t know how things end up, of course. So, isn’t a review, but an an example of the problems of using too much backstory.

Malcolm

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