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First Evidence
Ken Goddard
Bantam, 427 pages

James S. Warren Youll
First Evidence
Ken Goddard
Ken Goddard received a BS degree in biochemistry from the University of California (Riverside campus). Because of a judo accident, he ended up being hired as a deputy sheriff/criminalist with the Riverside County Sheriff's Department. After night school in Los Angeles and a stint in the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department Crime Lab, he had an opportunity to set up a Scientific Investigation Bureau for the Huntington Beach Police Department. With an MS degree in criminalistics, 12 years of homicide/rape/robbery/burglary crime scenes, another opportunity presented itself to set up the first full service crime lab for national and international wildlife law enforcement in Ashland, Oregon. His first book was titled Balefire, the story of a professional terrorist sent out to destroy the city of Huntington Beach. First Evidence is his 7th book.

Ken Goddard Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Todd Richmond

What would you expect from a book that begins with a 3-page evidence list, a crime scene diagram and the personnel list from 3 law enforcement agencies? A suspenseful murder mystery with a detailed, complex plot? A tale of alien abduction and elaborate cover-ups? How about both?

Colin Cellars is a newly assigned investigator with the Oregon State Patrol. Formerly a forensic specialist with the state crime laboratory, he has been assigned to Jasper County to investigate "crimes of a special nature." In the last 11 months, there have been over 220 reports of unusual sightings, 49 reports of alien abduction and 24 people reported missing in Jasper County. While the Oregon State Patrol is reluctant to consider that aliens may have taken the missing persons, they are concerned that a serial kidnapper/murderer may be at work in the area. Detective-Sergeant Cellars has been assigned to the cases and is charged with examining all the evidence and determining what is happening in Jasper County.

As First Evidence begins, Cellars finds himself tricked into presenting a lecture before the Alliance of Believers, a group of UFO enthusiasts. When he shows up to meet his old friend, Robert Dawson, he finds himself listed as the guest speaker -- and no sign of Dawson. Given his audiences and his expertise, he delivers a lecture on collecting evidence at a first contact site. (A bit of foreshadowing of what is to come.) By the end of the evening he discovers why Dawson failed to show up for their meeting -- he ends up collecting evidence at the scene of Dawson's murder. Given Dawson's reputation for being able to take care of himself, Cellars is eager to find out who, or what, murdered his friend. It is the beginning of a bizarre investigation involving disappearing corpses, an elaborate cover-up, and some high-tech detective work.

The only trouble is that the book has a hard time living up to the premise. A large part of the story works off of fear and suspense. It's difficult to build an atmosphere that keeps a reader on edge and Goddard falls short in the attempt. There were parts of the book where I knew I should have been apprehensive for Cellars and some of the other characters, but it just didn't happen. The whole book has more of the feel of a movie than of a novel. Many of the scenes would be great on the big screen with falling rain, poor lighting, and just a hint of what might be lurking at the edge of the woods. But a heightened feeling of suspense just didn't come through with the written word.

The book is also missing a lot of the detail you might expect in books versus movies. The exhaustive evidence list and the crime scene diagram lead you to believe that they will play an important role in the story, that they are important clues in an elaborate puzzle and that Cellars will play Sherlock Holmes and use every piece of evidence to reconstruct the crime and solve the mystery. Alas, they appear to be no more than window dressing. After glancing at them at the start, I never looked at them again while I was reading the book.

Seeing that Goddard is a former forensic scientist and crime lab director, you might think there would be scenes describing the collection of evidence in mind-numbing detail. At the very least, I expected Cellars' "guest lecture" on collecting evidence at a first contact site to be a very detailed reflection of how Goddard would himself conduct the investigation. Instead we get:

"And then, for the next fifteen minutes, he proceeded to walk them through it, step-by-step, explaining exactly how to set a perimeter and conduct a methodical crime scene search. And how each typical category of located evidence -- paint, glass, soil, residue, hair, fiber, tissue, bone, or impression mark -- had to be properly documented, marked, packaged, tagged, and preserved for later examination by a scientific expert."
He spends more time talking about why the investigator must be an impartial outsider than about the type of evidence they might find. Goddard goes into a little more detail later in the book, but not much more. And in a couple of places, where he tries to explain some molecular biology, the specifics and terminology are wrong.

The other main problem is with the characters. Other than Cellars, all of the characters are treated superficially. They are essentially one-dimensional window dressing for the story. At least if this was a movie you would have the added dimension of appearance. There is supposed to be some romantic tension and perhaps jealousy between some of the characters, but frankly I couldn't feel it. Even Cellars, the main character, isn't very well developed. By the end of the book we don't really know all that much more about him. He's a crime scene specialist, he has some personal involvement in the case, and we know how he works. But we don't know anything about him personally. Where he lives, what he eats, what he wears, his hobbies... I just didn't get a sense of the character. It is difficult to stay interested and focused on a story when you feel no connection to the main character.

So what's the final verdict? It's an interesting story that would probably play out better on a movie screen than in print. Goddard just didn't create enough of the atmosphere of fear and suspense that would have made this a truly gripping novel. The superficial treatment of the characters, their background and personalities didn't help matters either. If you're looking for a straight mystery/thriller or a straight science fiction novel, there are better books out there. But if you are looking for a light, interesting mix of the two, you may want to check out First Evidence.

Copyright © 1999 by Todd Richmond

Todd is a plant molecular developmental biologist who has finally finished 23 years of formal education. He recently fled Madison, WI for the warmer but damper San Francisco Bay Area and likes bad movies, good science fiction, and role-playing games. He began reading science fiction at the age of eight, starting with Heinlein, Silverberg, and Tom Swift books, and has a great fondness for tongue-in-cheek fantasy Óla Terry Pratchett, Craig Shaw Gardner and Robert Asprin.

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