Blood on the Water
Review by Mike Finkelstein
After the initial flurry of "Vampire Files" books, with five novels released in the span sixteen months, we come to the first slow down for the series. Book five, Fire in the Blood, ended on a cliffhanger, with our hero in a tight spot going up against new mob boss, Kyler Vaughn, but if fans were expecting another book three months later (as had been the pace of the previous novels), they were suddenly going to be forced to wait. This sixth novel, Blood on the Water, wouldn't come out until a full year later.
I won't deny I was critical of the previous novel. It was a solid effort, make no mistake, but in comparison to the adventures of book four, Art in the Blood, there was something missing from Fire in the Blood. I like detective novels that are something of mysteries, especially when they bill themselves as such, but in the run of the first five books, only book four actually had a real case (even if that one was fairly easy to parse out once you knew all the players). Book five's mystery wasn't as good or well developed, and by the middle of that novel it also was tangential to what was going on. I had hoped book six would see a better case, or something more challenging for our hero to handle, but despite a new kind of adventure here for our vampire detective, Fire in the Water, too, falls a bit short of the mark.
With the cliffhanger right over our heads, hero Jack Flemming and his private agent associate Escott had to deal with big developments: crime boss Kyler Vaughn was out for blood and wanted Flemming dead, especially since it seemed Flemming was more than just a two-bit hustler (i.e., although the boss didn't know it, Flemming was a vampire). Sensing a shift in the power structure of old Chicago, Vaughn had to get rid of Flemming, at all costs, so his plan was to send goons after everyone Flemming knew and either chase the vampire out of town, or kill him if at all possible. So people went after Bobbi, Flemming's gal, Escott, and their mob-friend and associate Gordy. Thankfully the plots failed.
However, that wasn't the only danger they had to face off against. There was also a new player in town, Angela Paco (daughter of felled mob boss Frank Paco, who was last bested by Flemming), and she wants to steal a larger part of the Chicago pie for herself. Flemming is just a bargaining chip to her, so if she could get her hands on him she'd turn him over to Vaughn for a better seat at the table. And then, somehow, Flemming starts having issues with his powers. He feels weak, can't control his abilities, and feels like he's about to die. All of this comes together for a very bad night for our vampire hero.
The first thing we have to establish going in to this novel is that it's not a mystery. Although the previous books had toyed with various cases (three of them about Flemming's own past before the crew finally got to take on professional cases) this novel ditches that conceit entirely. It's more of a gumshoe Noir adventure, with lots of shooting and a bit of danger, but there's nary an actual case to solve in sight. If you were hoping for a mystery mixed up in all this mess, this is not the book for you.
As far as actual adventure tales go, this novel certainly falls more in the "Penny Pulp" side of the equation. I think this all boils down to the way the novels are written, in a first-person limited perspective. That view of the story worked well when everything about the books (such as the first three novels) were all about Flemming. It also works well when we're on a case and the only facts we're supposed to know are what our detectives are able to find out. However, when it comes to an actual adventure, where there are good guys and bad guys and they're all fighting each other, we have to be able to get into the mids of our villains. This book doesn't really manage that.
Being able to understand the villains is key because the threats don't feel real if we can't grasp the lengths the villains will go to and why. Vaughn, for instance, is something of a cartoon character, a collection of ticks with "evil" stamped across his forehead, but we never really view him as an actual character. The same could be said of Angela as well, but at least in her case we understand something of her motivation: Vaughn has her father (who has been in a mental institution since his last run in with Flemming) and is mob boss is holding Paco as leverage over Angela.
What is Paco really after, though? The nebulous idea that he wants "more power" isn't really a motivating factor especially when we barely even get to view him as a character. The book doesn't do a good job of painting him as truly evil, or charismatic, or even interesting. We don't care if he gets more power, or loses it all, but he's never really a force in the book. Angela is interesting, at least in comparison to Vaughn, but she's only half the equation and the book can't really support itself because one of those two villainous pillars, Vaughn, is weak and underdeveloped.
As often happens with the villains can't hold up, we have to focus on the heroes more. Unfortunately in this case, Flemming is the whole show and he's just not interesting in this novel. In past books the full cast of characters -- Escott, Bobbi, and Gordy -- had been taking on larger support roles and we got to view them, and then view Flemming through their eyes, in new ways. But much of this book has Flemming on his own, going from one set-piece to another without any of his co-leads in tow. The whole of the book rests on his shoulders, but the character is only reacting to what's around him. Nothing here really develops him as a character any further than where he was at the start of book five.
The one wrench thrown into the works is Jack's sudden bout of weakness and inability to use his powers. Frankly, this plot twist came out of nowhere. We understand that he, as a vampire, has to feed and if he goes for too long without feeding he can become weak. However, we've never seen a situation like this where, even after feeding within his standard amount of time, Jack suddenly feels underpowered, like he's been, "overexerting myself", as he puts it. Suddenly he feels weak, doesn't understand why, and gets desperate. I want this to play, I want to understand what he's going through, but the book never really gives us a solid answer beyond, "I am tired and should have fed," and, well, that just doesn't really work.
All of these problems come together in the last act which then seems to set up a pretty dire situation for our hero as he's plunged into the water of Lake Michigan (running water being one of his great weaknesses), seemingly where he's condemned, at the bottom of the lake, for the rest of his unlife. But then he just escapes, floating up on the shore a couple of hours later in the epilogue to the novel. This whole last passage cuts the legs out from under a very effective cliffhanger and I have to wonder, considering how short and, frankly, crappy it is, if this epilogue was slapped on at the publisher's behest because the books weren't selling well.
Bear in mind that the break between novels from this book and the previous one wasn't a one-off but a trend that would get even worse: the next novel would take six years to come out. Maybe Elrod was just feeling burned out, but I would suspect that the publishers also wanted to pause the series and let fan interest build for a while. Publishers are like another kind of media studio and if something's not working they'll pause a series or even kill it outright, whether the authors are done with the series or not (just look at the Mode series from Piers Anthony, which suffered lackluster sales of the first three books and was effectively canceled until 2001 when, finally, Anthony could find a publisher for the fourth and final book in the series). Considering even the fans of the "Vampire Files" are mixed in their opinions of the novels, I could see the publisher wanting to take a long break after this novel before letting any further adventures out in the wild.
Personally, I think this was the right move. The series had been a bit... uneven, to be sure, and if a break between novels could help to punch up the series, that would seem to be for the best. I haven't read the seventh novel, Chill in the Blood, at the time of writing this review, so I don't know how good (or bad) it might be, but a long break could be just what the series needs to get the novels back on their feet.
Blood on the Water isn't a bad novel, I just have issues with its story construction and the way it handles its characters (which, admittedly, is a lot of what a novel has to do). The writing of the prose itself, and Elrod's dialogue, is still great, and even though I felt the novel was uneven I still chewed through it in a matter of days. I just like this setting and these characters enough that, especially after the cliffhanger of book five, I was expecting more than what I got. This is an okay novel but, especially knowing there was a big break between books after this, I would have hoped for something more. Much, much more.