Thursday, July 31, 2014

Visit the 1940's in "Murder at the Ocean Forest"

Murder and mayhem set in the WWII era - that's what we have today in Robert "Digger" Cartwright's mystery Murder at the Ocean Forest.  Joining us once again is guest reviewer, Gary Cummings, who has graciously assisted in reading a few novels from my never-ending review pile.  Gary is well-versed in the noir and 1940's murder mystery mindset, and I knew he'd be a perfect fit for Murder at the Ocean Forest.

Book Blurb:
When Faye Underwood, a distraught young woman, disappears from the elegant Ocean Forest Hotel, Feltus Boone LaMont, the quintessential Southern hotel detective, is drawn into the emotional drama surrounding the guests.

As Feltus conducts his investigation into Faye's apparent murder, her husband, Terence, is found murdered in their suite-with the door locked from the inside.

This draws Feltus further into the intriguing web surrounding the Underwoods and their acquaintances-Lord and Lady Ashburn (a British couple on holiday), Ms. Elizabeth Bascomb (a blind clairvoyant), and Preacher Cooper (a devout man of the cloth).

The intricate plot that stretches from Myrtle Beach to the battlefields of World War II unfolds as a very persistence Feltus eventually uncovers the skeletons in the closets of all his guests.

Gary's Review:
In Murder at the Ocean Forest by Robert “Digger” Cartwright we’re treated to a murder mystery set in South Carolina in the1940’s. We have a list of suspects which include an aristocratic married couple from Britain, a bickering husband and wife from South Carolina dripping with Old South money, a preacher who is not afraid to break a few rules while doing the Lord’s work, and a world-renowned clairvoyant.

Most of the action takes place at the elegant Ocean Front Hotel on the Atlantic Ocean. Woven throughout the story are three elements which seem never too far from the action: a gathering storm that threatens to turn into a hurricane, a painting with eyes that seem to follow guests as they pass through the hotel’s corridors and a supernatural entity named the Grey Ghost which is said to haunt the beaches outside the hotel. We’re given detailed backgrounds of the main characters before anything sinister takes place.

Lord George Ashburn and Lady Jane Ashburn had embarked on a trip to the States while Lord Ashburn was recuperating from wounds suffered on the field of battle in World War Two. Here Lord Ashburn recounts the events leading to his injuries:

“Accident in the battlefields of France,” he continued as though she would be interested in learning of his misfortune. His voice was strong and authoritative, giving way to his military experience and his own belief that when he spoke people should listen. “Lost most of my men there. Good soldiers they were, but the Nazis had us outnumbered three to one. I caught a bullet in my leg and some shrapnel in my back. Doctors on the field nearly lost me, but I was too stubborn to die.”

A nasty rumor has followed Lord Ashburn alleging that the platoon of Allied soldiers massacred at the hands of the Germans may have met their demise due to either his incompetence or his duplicity. 
Lady Jane Ashburn has borne the burdens of maintaining the home front while her husband was at war. Now she struggles with her emotions as she has had to take the lead on helping with her husband’s recuperation.

The war, of course, had changed people for the worse it seemed, especially those directly involved in the conflict; those individuals returned home with a cloud in their eyes that seemed to prevent the horrors of the fields from escaping from their minds. They were never free again; rather, they became prisoners of their own experiences that had been captured in their minds almost photographically. Most of those people afflicted as such never recovered, forcing their families to suffer with them in some private hell. She had been determined to save George, even if it meant dragging him halfway around the world, and all the better if she was able to kill two birds with one stone.

Faye and Terrence Underwood appeared to be the perfect couple. Terrence was a dashing fighter pilot, bred from moneyed stock, and Faye, so beautiful and refined, a perfect match for her perfect husband. On the train ride to the Ocean Forest hotel, however, turbulence bubbled beneath their perfect personas.

“Faye,” Terence continued, “we’ll be there in about an hour. Perhaps you’d like to join me in the club car for a drink before we arrive. I’ve met some very interesting people who will be staying at the hotel as well.” 

“I’m sure you have,” Faye said with the slightest touch of sarcasm in her voice, but enough to make her husband take notice of her displeasure.

 Terence’s entire body stiffened at the remark. “What is that supposed to mean?”

Faye gracefully moved her tongue over her dry lips. “I’m sure you have already met some interesting women, Terence. Tell me, how many have there been on this trip?” 

Sighing at this accusation, Terence stepped away from her chair and turned his back to her. “There have been no women on this trip, you know that.”

Preacher Cooper was returning home to South Carolina from war-torn Europe, his suitcase containing Bibles never far from his reach. The good reverend recounted his easy passages through international checkpoints:

Preacher Cooper smiled. “When I tell them I like to keep my books near me, they understand completely. They hardly ever even ask me to open my cases, but if they do, they see The Bibles and immediately let me pass.” It had always been that simple, from the very first time he had brought cargo from France to the United States. Most people never doubted a man of the cloth, especially if he was doing the good Lord’s work. If there were any trouble, he would simply charm him with some blessings and talk of his humble deeds in the battlefields.

Elizabeth Bascomb’s place as the America’s premier clairvoyant had been cemented after helping law enforcement all across the country solve murders. Elizabeth’s prowess was celebrated for two reasons: even though Elizabeth was of an advanced age she was prolific at solving here-to-for unsolved murders, and because she was blind. She had lost her sight in her youth in a terrible auto accident at the hands of a drunk driver. That driver was rumored to be a guest at the hotel. Not long after arriving at the Ocean Forest, Elizabeth sensed all was not right at the grand hotel.

Immediately upon setting foot into the renowned section of the hotel, Elizabeth began to experience another vision, surprising her by the frequency with which they had appeared to her during her stay here. It was if she had found a place conducive to such activities, though she attributed much to the troubled young woman who she had befriended. This vision was short but harrowing; there was a man, whom she recognized as an aviator, in his plane with a beautiful, wealthy woman at his side. While they conversed, the plane began its descent without the aviator’s control.

When greed, lust and revenge converge in a murder mystery, people are going to start dying and people are going to start lying. When the dying starts at the Ocean Forest, Hotel Inspector and member of the local constabulary, Feltus Boone La Mont is called to the crime scene to unravel the tangled details. A high-profile case at such a storied venue would draw a huge amount of publicity to the small town and make the investigation a nightmare, but Feltus was confident he was up to overseeing the investigation.

It really was quite inconsiderate of these supposedly “upstanding” people, whose wealth and social status permitted their vacationing here, to hover like vultures awaiting the news of a peer’s misfortune, even if this was the most exciting event in their relatively dull lives. He knew immediately that the suspicions were already circulating among the guests and that they only needed confirmation in order to aggrandize the entire miserable affair. Unfortunately, he would also be the center of attention for the next day…

The waves pound the shoreline of the majestic Ocean Forest while the Grey Ghost taunts those foolish enough to challenge the coming storm. The eyes of two figures in a painting seem to watch over the guests within the sturdy walls of the hotel. The walls provide protection from the power of superstition and the violence of nature, but unfortunately they can offer no protection from the force of human nature.

I can’t recommend Murder at the Ocean Forest. It was very difficult to read. Many sentences were torturously long. The same story could have been easily written cutting out two thirds of the text.

Written from an omniscient point of view, as murder mysteries tend to be written, the reader hears the thoughts of each character as we enter their point of view. However the book floods the reader with the point-of-view character’s thoughts, some relevant to the story, some not. Sometimes a sentence would begin with a character thinking about one thing and taking almost a contradictory position by sentence’s end.

The lovely scent of the fully blooming roses of all colours imaginable and robust gladiolas floated through the air and filled her nostrils with the aroma that soothed and relaxed both the mind and the body yet instilled in her a sense of foreboding and doom.

The long sentences, many fifty, sixty,  and seventy words and longer (a few coming in at over a hundred words) melded together to build towering paragraphs that only the most determined reader would scale. Paragraphs such as these can be discouraging and invite the reader to skip long sections of an author’s work. A reader who has to jump over sections of an author’s work is not likely to be a return customer. There were beautiful descriptions in Ocean Forest, however those descriptions tended to be lost within the many superfluous sentences and may go unread by the reader who wants to find out whodunit.

There were many opportunities for action given the cast of characters and the setting but most of Murder at the Ocean Forest was written as “telling, not showing.” Within the “telling” were annoying examples of author intrusion.

“Mr. Underwood, I has your baggage, sir,” he said with a strong Southern accent and improper grammar, given that he had had no formal education as a child.

The reader is capable of surmising that hired help at a hotel in 1940’s South Carolina has not had benefit of a good education just from the character’s words. Again:

     “How are you enjoying yourselves?” Terence asked. 

     “We’re having a splendid time,” she replied then added as if to insult her admirer, “though it is quite unfortunate that my husband couldn’t be joining us on the floor tonight, given his condition and all.” 

“Oh, yes,” he agreed with emphasis and false sincerity.

The dialogue could have been written in a manner which allowed the reader to discern tone and attitude from the characters without the narrative intruding. A reader doesn’t want to pause and say to himself, “Why did the author write it like that? Does he think I can’t figure it out for myself?”

Another reason for the very passive tone of the novel was an avalanche of adverbs. “Ly” words weighed the story down from the beginning. The abundance of the words “quickly,” “slowly” and “perfectly” stood out.

The setting for Ocean Forest was laid out nicely, though it used too much exposition. A murder mystery set in an environment of extreme wealth which exists alongside extreme poverty and populated by class-conscious people who invade good-old-boy country is intriguing. The backdrop of World War Two and the recent Great Depression seemed to offer great story possibilities for the reader.

Avoiding unintentional humor in a novel is one of many reasons I believe that writers should involve themselves in a critique group. A writer has a dozen other things going on in his head while trying to construct a plot, build believable characters, fact check, etc. Without good friends of like mind a writer can miss something. Here’s an example of unintentional humor that might not have made it into Ocean Forest’s manuscript if a couple of extra sets of eyes had looked over it:

Her mouth dropped open, revealing her white teeth and thick tongue, but she immediately moved her hands to her face to conceal her expression, though it was evident she was already greatly surprised.

Murder at the Ocean Forest was cumbersome to read and at times boring. One-and-a-half stars.

Thanks again to Gary for taking time out of his busy schedule to read and review for us here at the blog.  If Murder at the Ocean Forest sounds like something up your alley, you can pick up a copy by clicking on Amazon.

Author Bio:
Digger Cartwright is the author of several mystery stories and novels, including Murder at the Ocean Forest and The Versailles Conspiracy. As a noted industrialist, investor, and director of several private companies, Mr. Cartwright has written numerous articles on a wide range of financial, strategic planning, and policy topics and has contributed editorial content for the independent think tank, Thinking Outside the Box. He is also the contributing author of several finance and economic books. He divides his time between Washington, D.C., South Carolina, and Florida.

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