An unusual detective novel blends genres and clichÃ©s to create a suspenseful, likeable story.
Wagner embeds a Hardy Boys-esque teen mystery within the more complex frame of a seaside mystery a la Carl Hiaasen or John D. MacDonald, but he doesn’t fully embrace either genre–an unusual literary tactic that works surprisingly well. The story begins when Jack McBride, a disgraced former homicide detective trying to dry out in the California State Patrol, is called back to service on his day off. Jack was planning on spending the day diving for abalone with his teenage son, Troy. Reluctantly, he agrees to investigate a bloody murder scene at a houseboat rental company where a literal boatload of corpses–a film stunt coordinator and two women, all naked–has been discovered. The crime appears to be drug-related, but the author tosses in an interesting twist when Troy recognizes one of the victims as a fellow student at his high school. The detective is a fairly pedestrian creation in the die-hard detective mold, but Wagner, the editor of an internet magazine about teens, breathes life into Troy McBride, who possesses the charm and humor his father lacks. Jack’s case is difficult and somewhat convoluted, but the appeal is bolstered by a vicious, doomed ex-cop named Narco Dant, who serves as a Machiavellian villain. Troy’s amateur hunt for a killer hiding at school, while simple in nature, carries much more emotional weight. Wagner frames Troy’s teenage perspective within a very real, murderous threat, building up the suspense as the boy turns a suspicious eye toward a youthful classmate with plenty to hide. While The Houseboat Murders could have been a passÃ©, after-school special blown out to Hollywood proportions, the odd turn of events hidden within the straightforward structure rescues it from mediocrity.
A for effort, with bonus points for originality.