It’s the dead of night in the dead of winter, and bodies have been found, stacked ceiling-high, in a hillside cave in Ottawa’s Strathcona Park; necks pierced, blood drained – the usual. The city is gripped by a dusk-till-dawn curfew. The press, police and public have whipped each other into a glorious panic over someone or something called the “Vampire Undertaker.” Well, when did a silly curfew ever shut down the kitchen party at the Crimson house? Bring beer, bring smokes, but please bring yourself to meet The Vampires (there are at least four of them) and their quirky human pals. We can take turns feeding the baby vampire, stalling the cops when they come knocking, and tripping out on that time-dream machine up in the bedroom. You’ve got to love people who know how to make their own fun!
Samuel Crimson and his wife Magdalene have a problem: their stash of corpses is on the verge of being discovered. Thus begins The Crimson Crimes, with the Crimsons and their partners in crime — Derek, Kevin, and David Three Rats — bagging skeletons for removal in the dead of night. This clean up operation doesn’t go as smoothly as planned, sending the characters into new depths of trouble at every turn.
I liked The Crimson Crimes as a story, but as a book I struggled with every page. I think that the potential greatness of the storyline is undercut by the writing style. Written in long, convoluted sentences with far too many — often superfluous — subclauses that distract the reader and obscure meaning, this is a novel that demands careful attention to understand. Between adverb overload and use of rare words, The Crimson Crimes is composed with a style and vocabulary high above the norm in genre fiction — and that’s where it alienates its audience.
The language and sentence structure tends to get simpler as the book goes on, once the scene-setting of Part I is complete and background stories are established. But by the time I got that far I was already so fed up with having to reread sentences and paragraphs to get the point, that I had a hard time enjoying the rest of the book.
The Crimson Crimes contains erotic elements, but these I found largely dissatisfying. The pacing and placement of intimate scenes was excellent, but I’m a firm believer that the time to show off one’s extensive vocabulary is not during a sex scene. Words like “vaginal walls” and “cervix” aren’t all that sexy. Their use made the intimate scenes read like driving directions.
I was also confused by the inconsistent use of dingbats. In some places they merely mark a dramatic pause or a short passage of time before the narrative resumes in the same place, focusing on the same characters. In other places, dingbats are used to mark shifts between characters and locations. It was a little disorienting, never knowing whether a dingbat was meant to signal a full stop or a brief pause.
What I do have to give The Crimson Crimes points for is that McCarthy knows how to write suspense. When things go wrong in this novel, they go spectacularly wrong, and it keeps the reader on the edge with superb pacing. I’m familiar with almost all of the locations mentioned in this book, but a lot of the time I found myself trying to block that out. The Crimson Crimes is set in Ottawa, which isn’t often used as a setting in crime novels. As the capital city, Ottawa has an interesting mix of old European charm and Canadian modernity. It’s a rather refined urban centre, and I think that’s what made it difficult for me, as a local, to suspend disbelief. If it had been set in a place like Hamilton (often used as a stand-in for downtown Detroit in movies and TV shows), I wouldn’t have had a problem. There’s something about Ottawa that just doesn’t lend itself to murder.
Because The Crimson Crimes is part of a series, the ending didn’t have a firm conclusion. This is no big deal if you intend to read the entire series, but I wouldn’t recommend experiencing The Crimson Crimes as a standalone. It’s a quirky book, definitely refreshing for fans of vampire fiction who have read it all. I’d recommend it to fans of vampire paranormals — it just takes a little patience to get through.