December 3, 2011

The Case of the Microwave Murder

I considered Erick G. Benson’s debut novel, The Weight-Pile Murder, a failure because of flaws in its structure, problems with the prose, and a lack of tension. He has corrected those flaws in the second Tiger Price murder mystery, but I was steal not impressed.

In Framed Justice ( ISBN 978-0-595-43681-1), Tiger Price investigates the murder of a drug dealer for which his best friend’s son is on trial.

Mario Peck, the son of Price’s friend Paul, got into a fight with his neighbor Fred Dixon over a microwave oven in the hotel where he lived. Fred ended up dead after Mario stabbed him in the neck with a small knife. Somebody hit Mario on the hit, causing him to become woozy, so he didn’t know what happened next. Mario was arrested and accused of killing Fred.

Mario, electing to be his own lawyer, is denied access to his file. The Judge also denies several of the many motions he files. He and his father believe the police, the prosecutor, and the judge are conspiring to frame him. Paul hires attorney Larry Deter, but later tries to fire him because he thinks the attorney isn’t working hard enough on the case. The judge denies his request.

When Price asks Deter to hire him as his investigator, Deter refuses because he doesn’t want Price interfering and telling him how to try the case. This doesn’t stop Price from investigating the case on behalf of his best friend. Upon his initial inspection of the crime scene and review of what little evidence there is Price sees sloppy investigative work.

During his investigation, Price finds himself going up against the system and Deter. He gets help from his friend Ethal, the very efficient clerk at the prison where he previously worked, and from an individual named Pilgrim who hangs out in front of his new office. The evidence he gathers is so compelling Deter cannot refuse to present it in court. The identity of the killer is revealed during Deter’s defense not during Price’s investigation.

Benson shows a flair for vivid description as he presents a picture of the dark side of poverty on a tour of the section of the city near the hotel known as the Black Tunnel:
TP was dumbfounded. The scene was like nothing he'd ever seen in his life. There were aluminum cans and broken bottles strewn across the entire street, sort of like nightmare alley. There were rats as big as cats strolling along freely down the sidewalk, almost carefree, as if marking out a territory. Two homeless-looking men were urinating side-by-side in the middle of the street and, more disgusting still, a woman crouched on the curbside of the street, defecating. TP continued to watch, shocked. The woman finished her business, pulled up her pants, and walked over to a man standing nearby. She placed her hand in a large bag of potato chips that he was holding.

His use of the third person point of view and vivid descriptions show Benson is capable of writing readable prose.

I didn’t like the presentation of the details essential to the plot through courtroom scenes instead of straight narrative. The introduction of a supernatural character who is clearly the deus ex-machina, though well done, is, nevertheless, unnecessary.

The religious element at times intrudes and adds nothing to the plot, character, or theme. For me, the main problem with both novels is the character of Tiger Price. He has no flaws and lacks emotional depth. He is too perfect. I admit he is not as annoying in Framed Justice as he is in The Weight-Pile Murder.

Sometimes, it is difficult to tell whether the thoughts expressed about society, the judicial system, and God are those of Tiger Price or his creator.