Mark Cohen is the new kid on the block with his first mystery
novel, THE FRACTAL MURDERS. His hero is Pepper Keane, a burned-out
former boxer, Marine attorney, U.S. Attorney, founder/partner of a
private practice law firm, and now a Boulder, Colorado private
investigator. Pepper is a very bright, very curious man who is
fascinated by philosophy and reads Heidegger for pleasure. He loves
old rock-and-roll accompanied by sets of old country. For extra
non-taxable spending money he writes perfect briefs for his former
law partner. His best friends are Buck and Wheat, his dogs.
Professor Jayne Smyers, Ph.D., is a specialist in the new
mathematical arena that is exploring the application of fractals.
She hires Pepper to unravel two murders and an alleged autoerotic
suicide (really a third murder) of colleagues who were high on the
totem pole of fractal theory and how to apply this arcane,
complicated and "hot" specialty to the everyday world. When Keane
interviews her she tells him, " ... my specialty is fractal
geometry. Last year I began working on a paper I intended to
present at a conference this fall. When I completed my draft, I
wanted someone else to critique it..." to make sure that it didn't
have any flaws. "But ... fractal geometry is a rather narrow
specialty, so [she] compiled a list of five of the most respected
people in the field and attempted to contact them. I learned that
two had been murdered and a third committed suicide. All within six
months of each other."
Pepper Keane is a careful man. He wants to be sure he understands
why she called him. Dr. Smyers says she explained that the odds of
it being a coincidence were astronomical. After a few pointed
questions he is told that neither the police nor the FBI had any
interest in pursuing cases out of their jurisdictions or with no
obvious connections to each other beyond the fact that the two men
and one woman worked in the same field of study.
He takes the case, and as he begins his investigation, he immerses
himself in the study of fractals; after reading everything the
professor provided him, he wants to read the police reports on the
deaths. From Boston to Nebraska to Kansas to Colorado, Pepper and
his buddy Scott pragmatically set about to gather as much
information as they can. Not everyone is cooperative; thus, they
must find people to intervene on their behalf or devise other ways
to get what they need.
In between the travel and the phone calls and the faxes and the
bulging files, Cohen has his man give readers a running commentary
of every move he makes and describes every object he sees. And this
is one of the major flaws that is at the heart of THE FRACTAL
MURDERS. With a fascinating topic like this, readers may wonder why
the writer chose not to bring readers into the complex
philosophical and fractal geometric threads that hold the story
Instead of a challenge he offers a low-key and mundane narrative
framed by banalities that add nothing to the tension or what
suspense readers expect from a mystery novel. All of the extraneous
information bogs down the pace of the novel and detracts from the
academic, governmental, technological and mathematical intricacies
that would have made this book a blockbuster in the spirit of
Charles Palliser or Umberto Eco.
As the story unfolds and Pepper becomes more and more involved, he
relies on his gut instincts and the faith he has in his
intellectual prowess. He is an interesting guy who is very
congenial, which makes him an appealing character. When he is
ruminating, or opining, the reader gets a glimpse of what Mark
Cohen could have done with this debut book. Perhaps he had a case
of "first novel-itis" and thus played it safe. Unfortunately,
because he has written small, readers will be left wanting.
Perhaps in his next attempt, he will feel comfortable enough to
splash his canvas with bold strokes and dazzling colors. Avid
readers are always ready to give new writers a second chance ---
fortunately for all concerned.
Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on January 22, 2011