Saturday, August 1, 2009

Mortal Wounds by Max Allan Collins (omnibus of CSI tie-in novels Double Dealer, Sin City, and Cold Burn)

Anyone who reads this and asks: "Why is Max Allan Collins writing CSI novels?" must have forgotten (or never knew) that, in between his various graphic novel and historical mystery projects, Collins has had a lively TV/movie tie-in sideline going on for some time now. In fact, it was his novelization of Saving Private Ryan that gave him the "New York Times Bestselling Author" designation that has appeared on nearly every one of his book covers since.

The bottom line is that Collins writes intelligent, detail-oriented, fast-paced novels (mysteries for the most part) and so is a perfect fit for CSI. His experience writing in the voices of already-extant characters also serves well in his representation of Grissom, Willows, Brass, Brown, Stokes, and Sidle: every line reads as if it were delivered by the actors; and remember, these are original plots, not novelizations of previously filmed teleplays, making the result that much more admirable.

Mortal Wounds collects the first three novels Collins wrote connected with this long-running TV series, a job that has since been continued by other authors as Collins moved his focus on to novels related to other series like Bones and Criminal Minds.

Double Dealer is the first novel in the series and contains a good amount of extra detailed history, in-depth predictive reenactments, and copious description, while still respecting the "reality" of the events from the first season. (Something that is also good to remember: later season events, relationships, and promotions are not reflected here, the only major drawback to reading a novel based on an ongoing television series.)

A mummified corpse is discovered that carries the same shooter's-signature as a more recently dispatched victim. However, true to form, Grissom considers the two to be separate cases until the evidence proves otherwise. I'm hesitant to provide too much detail about the plot, but series fans will love how Collins follows the normal procedure of a typical episode in Double Dealer -- all the way down to the jaw-dropping climax and the non sequitur ending. In addition, he adds his own brand of humor, particularly in the form of in-jokes during an interrogation in a video store. (He not only name-drops his own innovative DVD Real Time: Siege at Lucas Street Market, but also a classic from actor William Petersen's past.)

A satisfying read all around, Double Dealer enhances the CSI mythology without having to go outside the expected realm and leaves plenty of room for further development, making it perfect for fans but also approachable for the uninitiated. (Of course, this metafiction-loving reviewer would be tickled pink to see the worlds collide by having this novel adapted into a future CSI movie, bringing everything full circle.)

Sin City repeats everything that was good about Double Dealer: solid plotting, familiar characterization, loyalty to the format. It's the rare sophomore effort that improves upon its predecessor. That it is also longer makes this feat even more surprising.

Las Vegas earns its notorious nickname when a man's wife disappears and their neighbors suspect the husband, particularly since the wife gave them a secreted cassette tape with the husband threatening to dismember her recorded on it. Meanwhile, a stripper is murdered in the lap-dance room at Dream Dolls (where Catherine used to work before she got her degree in the forensic sciences) and the surveillance cameras point to her boyfriend, who was not only under a restraining order, but also claims he was home watching the game at the time.

Sin City fulfills on all levels. The voices are perfect and one can go from watching the television series to reading the novels seamlessly, which is likely the best compliment one can give to a genre that gains little respect from the literary community but has been vastly appreciated by TV watchers and readers alike for decades.

Collins (with help once again from researcher and plotter extraordinaire Matthew V. Clemens) again delivers the forensic goods in Cold Burn. In the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, two wintry murders, separated by most of the continental United States, tax the resources of the Las Vegas CSI team. While Catherine, Warrick, and Nick remain on home turf to take care of the mysteriously wet and naked dead female dropped on a park trail, Sara and Grissom are on their way to a seminar in New York, a working vacation. Surprised by work in its midst, they come across an ad hoc funeral pyre in the middle of a snowstorm.

Collins stays faithful to the existing characters while taking advantage of the novel format, creating new storylines and suspects that fit the surroundings but that stretch the usual boundaries with their use of more realistic murders and even rough language. A highlight of this novel is watching Grissom learn new techniques when a Canadian CSI shows his particular skills in working a crime scene covered with snow.

I find reading the novels a perfect way to pass the time instead of watching another rerun for the fourth or fifth time, given how many stations are carrying the show in syndication. (Coincidentally, however, an episode that is referred to as "the Marks case" in Cold Burn was conveniently rebroadcast on the night I read about it, allowing me to get deeper insight into the actions of one of the regulars.)

I still feel as if I have just begun this series, and I'm not about to stop now. More novels follow the three included in the Mortal Wounds omnibus, and I've read one, Body of Evidence, so far, with equally entertaining results. Collins also wrote a handful of other novels for this series and a couple of CSI: Miami novels, as well as a selection of CSI graphic novels, and the plots for CSI video games and at least one CSI board game. For a while there, Max Allan Collins was the go-to guy for nearly all the related materials, and his immersion in that world shows in the quality of his work.

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