The Black Tea Experiments
Review: Ray Atkinson coins the term "airplane novel" for his first mystery, The Black Tea Experiments, a book long enough to provide suspense, action, crime and romance in a story that can be completed during the length of a typical flight. Terrific concept, but, at least in this first attempt, rather poorly executed.
There's a fairly intriguing plot at the core of this book: a student at a university in Illinois is found murdered but with an unusual physical feature: one of his kidneys had been recently removed, the incision neatly and expertly sewn together. A fellow student, Logan Bauer, finds himself drawn into the case when an astronomical experiment he is conducting using a telescope on the roof of his dorm accidentally captures the scene of the murder when a spring breaks and the lens points downward instead of skyward. Pursued by the killers for the images taken by the telescope, Logan discovers he is merely a pawn in an international incident that had its origins back in the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
The problems in The Black Tea Experiments begin with the very first chapter. Every character, even a minor one, is introduced with a backstory. For a book of less than 150 pages and a dozen or more characters, it's overwhelming. Furthermore, these backstories seem intended to take the place of character development, as if by knowing how the characters came to be where they are today the reader can somehow infer something meaningful about them. Finally, it's impossible to generate any real, sustained suspense when the flow of the plot is constantly interrupted with yet another backstory for yet another usually unnecessary character. This is all the more unfortunate because the main story has a lot of potential to be a terrific thriller.
The book is riddled with errors and inconsistencies that could have been eliminated with a more critical eye towards editing. The director of the Black Tea project ridicules the ignorance of the parents whose children are the subject of the experiments, yet he includes his own children in them. Logan travels west (instead of east) to go from Illinois to Indiana. He goes through customs leaving (instead of entering) the US. In any transplant, the time between extraction of the organ from the donor and its placement in the recipient is critical, yet here, days or maybe even weeks, it's not clear, go by between the respective surgeries. This also contradicts a statement made in the book that the surgery takes place in the US rather than Russia because there wasn't time to get the kidney out of the country. And probably worse of all, especially for a mystery, no explanation is ever given why the kidney donor, the murder victim, was killed in the first place. It's disturbing that Atkinson took the time to develop an interesting plot, yet didn't seem to care enough about the details that are so crucial to the success of a crime novel.
There is almost certainly a market for mysteries and thrillers that are longer than a short story but shorter than a standard-length novel ("airplane novels" as it were). Unfortunately, The Black Tea Experiments isn't a very good example of one.
Acknowledgment: Spotlight Publicity provided a copy of The Black Tea Experiments for this review.
Review Copyright © 2007 — Hidden Staircase Mystery Books — All Rights Reserved
Location(s) referenced in The Black Tea Experiments: Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Russia
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The Black Tea Experiments by Ray Atkinson
Publisher: American Book Publishing
Format: Trade Paperback
Publication Date: March 2007
List Price: $18.00