Peter Helton’s Honeysett murder-mystery series distinguished itself with its quirky tone and with the aesthetically obsessed gumshoe at its center. Falling More Slowly kicks off a new series by the German-born author-painter, who aims closer to the center, but unfortunately rarely hits his mark. Gone is the artist moonlighting as a private investigator, and in his place is Liam McLusky, a half-in-the-bag, freshly transferred detective inspector who’s tasked with thwarting a homegrown terrorist plot, but must first contend with Bristol’s clogged thoroughfares, a standard-issue hard-nosed police chief, and the largely interchangeable co-workers who resent his newfound authority.
A great terrorism story like Don DeLillo’s “Baader-Meinhof” can examine how quickly the mundane shades into the horrifying in the wake of unexpected violence. But in Falling More Slowly, even after three black-powder bombs secreted inside everyday objects have delivered their payloads, there’s little indication that Bristol is on high alert. Without a sense of urgency, the murders pile up without necessarily escalating, and a B-plot about a balaclava-wearing gang of “mobile muggers” charts a similar course of repetitive, flagrant criminal exploits that make Bristol’s finest look like the Keystone Kops.
Without a sturdy narrative engine to propel the story forward, Falling More Slowly relies on humor—groan-inducing puns, mostly—and a few romantic interludes between McLusky and a willing uni professor to fill the pages between explosive blasts, taunting Zodiac-killer-style letters, and the requisite poring over surveillance footage. When an old flame interrupts a promising date, there’s ample opportunity for examining the wreckage, both literal and emotional, that resulted in McLusky’s transfer. Instead, Helton settles for a bit of sitcom business that sees each of Liam’s potential love interests stumbling into the same walk-up on—you guessed it—the very same night.
Still, there are flashes of compelling prose here. Often, the most violent scenes cause Helton to warm to his task: “The car’s interior felt like a giant mouth with broken teeth and a half-chewed man on its tongue,” reads a description of one of the more grisly bombings. More often than not, though, the writing is merely functional. Helton’s moralizing is even thinner soup, as the book’s pessimistic refrain that city-dwellers prefer spectating to helping their fellow man is driven home with all the subtlety of a pipe bomb. With its stingily doled-out backstory and leaden plotting, Falling comes across as more table-setting for future McLusky outings than as a satisfying meal in itself.