I was very excited to read The Maidstone Conspiracy because my mother’s paternal ancestry is all from Maidstone—generations all from Maidstone until my great-grandfather emigrated in the 19th century. So I had some natural curiosity to read something set there. However, the center of gravity in this story is actually Colorado both in time, focus and the balance of the mystery. Still, some important characters were in Maidstone and spent time there. Osborne is not skilled with creating a sense of place and Maidstone remains a name on a map. He did do a good job of describing an office in the House of Lords and a clearing in Colorado. The rest of the time, the setting was perfunctory.
The Maidstone Conspiracy is a genre mystery. By that, I mean it is not seeking to reach beyond its market. The focus of the novel is the plot, the mystery, the investigation. There is also some romance, though the lack of nuanced character development made the romance so very secondary as to be unimportant other than adding a wife and children to be additional targets of the bad guys.
They say write what you know. I don’t think that is great advice. You should write emotions you know, because you cannot write very authentically about emotions you have not experienced. But you don’t have to be a ninja to write about them and sometimes being a business executive can focus your attention on details that are unessential to forwarding the story.
Many of the best novels are written about things people definitely do not know. Writing what you know can lead an author to be too exacting, too detailed, too focused on the trees they miss the forest. James Osborne wrote what he knows. But you know what? Realistic investigation is slow and dull. The phone calls going back and forth, the details of building a case with photos, prints and so on are not what draws people into a mystery, it is the process of inference from the facts. The casting about of ideas and slowly figuring it out. Well, that just did not happen in this mystery We see various investigators investigating, but we don’t see them inferring, speculating, brainstorming. We knew what pieces of evidence were collected and gathered, but were left out of the deductive and abductive process. That is unfortunate because the plot was relatively complex in terms of events and people involved. That had the most potential for making this a successful mystery if the investigation were prioritized over the business hoopla (another case of writing what you know interfering with story-telling) and the family life.
Osborne needs a stronger editor. There is a tendency to tell instead of show, to give things away with awkward foreshadowing such as the whole collecting evidence of a Webley handgun early on in the story. It was kind of a neon sign that one of two people would be involved in the nefarious plots that abound. Because he tells instead of shows, his characters are single-dimensional. We have cartoonish villains, with one exception and seriously, he does not make any sense as a villain whatsoever. Yes, it was easy to begin suspecting him (awkward foreshadowing again) but his motivation really was insensible. Also, we do not learn how the authorities identify the final suspect. That is off-screen, out of sight which makes it even more annoying because if his motive makes no sense, it is doubly unfair to have these shadows tailing him from the airport without telling us how they knew who he was. That’s breaking the Detection Club rules.
And of course, all this makes Paul Winston, the hero of the story seem really dumb. After all, he’s shot and can’t think of who it can be when the main suspects were telegraphed to the reader in blinking neon. This is painful. He’s also an ineffective hero as he plays no real role in solving the mystery.
There were also some continuity errors that had me confused before I just realized they were mistakes. The book opens with a shooting in 2010, then jumps to 1990 when Paul Winston’s parents and uncle die. The parents’ die first and then the uncle. These are not spoilers, they are the set up. But then we are in 2014 and that is actually when the shooting happens. Except that the final resolution to the mystery happens five years later which is either 2019 or 2015 and now I am confused. To make it worse, we hop forward to 2030 for an unnecessary happy ever after.
The best chapter and characterization is the story line with the kidnapping of Paul’s stepson Douglas. We get to see Douglas figure things out. We get to see him struggle to solve his dilemma. If Osborne wrote the rest of the book the way he wrote that, this would have been an excellent book.
This all makes me feel like an ungracious reader as I won an autographed copy of this book directly from the author who generously offered it on GoodReads. But, I hope he realizes that if I thought he had no potential, I would not spend this much time explaining what this story needs to be stronger. I hope that in future mysteries, he gets outside his area of expertise in finance unless the story itself is a financial caper. Just finance to make the guy richer is boring. We know Bruce Wayne is rich, we don’t know how he finances his mergers.
I want to see the investigators be the focus and see how the figure it out. Or, if not, then don’t make it a mystery, make it romance. I don’t want to know what everyone is thinking. I want to learn what matters to them through actions and dialogue. I want more subtle foreshadowing. If the victim is the hero, then he has to be more involved in solving the mystery than picking the best private investigator to hire. He has to be smarter and suggest the obvious suspects. If he wants to confound the reader, give them fake alibis or something, don’t make the hero be obtuse. And really, ask for a better editor because that timeline still has me confused.