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Onyx reviews: The Spire by Richard North Patterson

Though billed as a thriller, The Spire is actually a cold case whodunnit. Mark Darrow (a lawyer named Darrow? really?) returns to his alma mater and immediately starts digging into a fifteen-year-old murder case. It's not truly a cold case, because everyone else believes that the guilty party (Darrow's best friend at the time) was convicted and sentenced to life for the murder of black co-ed Angela Hall. Mark has returned to Ohio and Caldwell College because his former mentor, Lionel Farr, selected him as the prime candidate for president of the college. The previous president is suspected of embezzling nearly a million dollars from the endowment fund. The college's reputation and future funding is at stake.

Darrow was previously hand-picked by Farr for a football scholarship that kept him from a dead-end job in the local factory after high school. Instead he was given the chance of a lifetime that put him on the road to a Yale law degree and a high-paying job in Boston. Darrow's pregnant wife died in a car accident two years ago. At loose ends, he is available to uproot himself and return to Caldwell, where the college's iconic spire serves as a constant reminder of the murder. Angela Hall's body was found at the base of it after a rambunctious frat party -- found, in fact by Mark. Shortly after returning to town, he embarks on a relationship with his mentor's daughter, who was only a girl when he last saw her. All of this is quite good, and fodder for interesting character and plot developments. A lot of people aren't happy that Mark is rooting around in the past, partly because it brings back unpleasant memories and partly because it makes them feel that Mark suspects they didn't do their jobs properly. The one person who probably did not do his job properly, the defense lawyer for Mark's friend, has died in the interim.

The success of a whodunnit depends on two things: a surplus of likely suspects and a surprising but credible reveal when the real murderer is unmasked. There are other candidates for the Angela's murder, though the most likely one is SO obvious as to be dismissed--at least in a suspense novel. Once the embezzlement case ties in with Mark's off-the-record homicide investigation, though, the number of suspects drops precipitously.

After a steady, if unremarkable, beginning and middle section, where Mark interviews a lot of people who have amazingly accurate recall of an event (albeit a memorable one) from fifteen years in the past, the book collapses. The real culprit is simultaneously obvious (because who else could it be?) and incredible, because the author has laid so little groundwork for the reveal. Everything we know about the character is undone. True, there were some very subtle clues scattered throughout, but it just didn't feel right.

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