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Sunday September 2, 2012

No lost treasure

The Lost Years
Author: Mary Higgins Clark
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 292 pages

IN her acknowledgements, Mary Higgins Clark says she almost didn’t write this book, but a little voice would not leave her alone until she did.

I kinda want to slap that little voice.

Not the worst of writers when she sticks to what she knows, with The Lost Years Higgins Clark bit off far more than what she can comfortably nibble.

Jonathan Lyons has been murdered at the ripe olde age of 70. His daughter Mariah discovers her mother smeared in his blood and holding the murder weapon standing over his body. Kathleen, in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, knew Jonathan was unfaithful. She did not know he had recently ended the affair. Beyond the two women scorned, the list of suspects grows when it is learned that Jonathan supposedly found one of the most valuable documents of the modern world: the only letter still in existence written by Jesus Christ. Stolen from the Vatican library five centuries ago, if recovered this letter would be a game changer for the church.

It’s a little late in the day for an author to be hopping onto The Da Vinci Code Express but even if it long left the station, Higgins Clark still takes a flying run at her own Vatican conspiracy novel. Unfortunately, this results in a splat that leaves quite a mess on the tracks. Where Code’s Dan Brown would have done something quite phenomenal with the idea of a letter written by Christ, Higgins Clark treats it as the most mundane motive for murder.

There is no real hint at its global importance. The interest of church and collectors is vague, the history and mythology is non-existent. The only ones affected or interested appear to be Jonathan’s nearest and dearest. It might has well have been naughty pictures of an unfaithful spouse, an updated will, damning corporate correspondence, or any other item from the banal archive of things people kill or get killed over.

Though vague about anything to do with history or religion, Higgins Clark seems almost obsessive-compulsive about clothes, refreshments and timing: “At seven o’clock, (Mariah) changed into a long blue skirt and white silk blouse, touched up her makeup, brushed her hair loose, walked across the lawn to the Scott’s home, and rang the bell. Lisa answered the door. As usual she looked glamourous in a designer multicoloured shirt and slacks, with a silver belt that hugged her hips and silver slippers with five-inch heels.”

The next paragraph assures us that Lisa is not only a glamorous but a good host as we see by the cheese, crackers and wine already on the table.

This paragraph takes place at the peak of a crisis but a reader is forgiven for forgetting that a father has been murdered, a senile and terrified old woman has been arrested, a killer is on the loose, and one of the world’s major religions is about to be turned on its ear. If the characters can pause for wine and cheese, so can we.

Nothing, but nothing spurs anyone to action. When one character realises that someone she loves may have been kidnapped or even killed, she is so upset that she leaves her “half-eaten Danish on her plate”. Luckily, again Higgins Clark slows down the pace enough to assure her readers that even though the character’s heart is “pounding with anxiety”, she still “dressed in her lightweight running suit, swallowed her vitamins and hastily put on some light makeup”. It is the word “hastily” that gets me. As if the tipping point from concerned to callous rests on how long one takes to apply one’s makeup.

Dialogue between characters is utterly staged and entirely for the reader’s benefit. In one of the more bizarre conversations, a father and son who enjoy a close relationship remind each other of their ages and shared family history: “I’ve been thinking a lot about the trust fund my grandfather set up for me when I was born. Since four years ago, when I turned 30, I’ve been free to use the money whatever way I want.”

“That’s right, Richard (says Richard’s dad). It’s too bad you never got to know your grandfather. You were just a baby when he died. He was one of those guys who started out with nothing but had an instinct for the market....”

Weirder still are what seems to be dialogue but is not: “In the hospital, I sat beside her bed all night. She was moaning and crying. I had blood all over my blouse from where I leaned over Dad and put my arms around him. The nurse was good enough to give me one of those cotton jackets the patients wear.”

This is far more believable as conversation, something Mariah could be saying to a good friend or the police. Except that in instances like these, there is no dialogue because the character is talking to herself. For some odd reason, they invariably do this in first person, narrating rather than pondering.

While reading The Lost Years, the image of Dame Sally Markham, a character from the hilarious TV show Little Britain, came to mind. The dame lounges on a loveseat and strokes her little white dog as she dictates her next romance novel, filling pages with any fluff she can muster just to get the required number of pages to the publishers.

Higgins Clark must have written better books that this one to become as famous as she is. Unfortunately, with this latest book she has this reader down.


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