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Macomber's hero gets the job done with few surprises

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Portland author Doc Macomber carefully penned River City, displaying his simple, elegant and easy to digest style. He lives in a Columbia River houseboat (above).Why is it that books so often have to fall into two categories? Either a piece of literature is “plot driven” or “character driven.”

“Character driven” books are typically regarded as a higher form of literature, even if they are not terribly entertaining. “Plot driven” books are generally considered a lower form of literature because while they may be entertaining, there is often not much substance.

Most mysteries fall into the “plot driven” category (read Brown, Dan). “River City” by Portland author Doc Macomber ($16, Floating Word Press) is a murder mystery, but it straddles the line between being “plot driven” and “character driven” as well as any mystery I have read in a long time.

The story takes place in Portland, mainly on the waterfront, and Sauvie Island. River Patrol Deputy Jason Colefield is charged with investigating the murder of a young boy. As the investigation progresses, it becomes evident that the murder is part of a string of killings linked to a serial killer.

The plot is compelling. It does not move at breakneck speed, but it progresses fast enough to keep you turning the pages past bedtime (one of the intangibles of a good mystery).

If the plot was all “City” had going for it, the book would have been an enjoyable read that most would finish without regret and proceed to forget about, as most readers of mysteries have forgotten about the majority of the mysteries they have read.

However, Macomber has added another layer to the storytelling. He fleshes out his main character and makes Colefield a relatable detective whose personal story is as interesting as the mystery he is trying to solve.

Unlike many detectives, Colefield possesses no super powers (read Holmes, Sherlock). Frankly, Colefield is pretty average. And that makes him relatable. He goes about his detective work as one would imagine most “real life” detectives do.

The murder Colefield is trying to solve forces him to face several of his personal failings and demons. There is Hank Scarbough, the old man who finds the murdered boy and the villain of Colefield’s childhood. There is Jill, the girlfriend whom Colefield is doing his best to drive away from him. Most importantly, there is FBI agent Tamara Costa, a woman from Colefield’s past who has been assigned to help him with the case of the murdered boy.

Macomber does a very nice job of describing Sauvie Island and his description of the Pearl District is gorgeous. One of the most interesting things about the book for Portlanders is the way Macomber describes parts of Portland most residents are unfamiliar with, like the River Patrol and what life is like living on a boat.

The writing is simple, elegant and easy to digest. As the story progresses, one is equally as interested in the murder case as what will happen in Colefield’s personal life.

Many mysteries are all about the ending. The surprise twist at the end that you never see coming.

“City” has a few surprises, but there is no huge twist. Neither the end result of Colefield’s investigation nor what happens with his personal life will surprise you. But that does not detract from the book. In fact, it is because “City” has been told so carefully that you are not surprised. By the end, the reader has a grasp on the strong plot and feels as though they know the character.

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