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Book Review: The Shark, by Mary Burton

In which I make the mistake of reading a badly-researched romance novel pretending to be a detective thriller.

The Shark

Montlake, 2016, 366 pages

At the grisly murder scene of a teen prostitute, Virginia state trooper Riley Tatum's past roars back to haunt her. When she was a teenage runaway, she was kidnapped, drugged, and left unconscious on the streets. She has no memories of what happened, only strange recurring dreams of two men playing cards.

Former FBI agent Clay Bowman, Riley's old flame, is Shield Security's newest member. He's plagued by the unsolved case of a serial killer nicknamed the Shark who murdered girls as part of a sadistic poker game. Only one girl survived. With the Shark now bent on evening that score, Clay has a chilling suspicion: Riley is the girl who escaped the Shark's deadly amusement - and she is his next prey.

As the Shark gets ready to play his hand, can Riley and Clay stop him - or will this killer finally claim the one who got away?

I have been reading a lot of serial killer thrillers lately, in an effort to kick my writing back into gear. Anyway, this was an Audible Daily Deal so I downloaded it without noticing that it's from a romance publisher. While I was really not into the romance, that part fortunately did not take up a large part of the novel. It was actually the parts about poker that really annoyed me. Jesus, Mary Burton, could you possibly have written a more melodramatic and improbable climax?

So I'll warn you right now, this review is spoiler-heavy — skip the rest if you actually care about that. Though to be honest, I don't think I'm spoiling much because besides being an awfully researched book with a ton of stuff that didn't make much sense, it was just predictable as hell, with everyone behaving like a cardboard caricature. Like most mystery/thriller readers, I try to figure out who the real killer is early, as well as guessing other significant plot twists, and then I grade myself according to how well I did. The Shark was an easy A. The red herrings are too obvious, the secrets you can see coming from a mile away (which makes you much brighter than the main character), and the climax, when it comes, is anticlimactic and far too neat.

Riley Tatum was a troubled teen runaway who was kidnapped, drugged, and dumped on the streets with no memories. (We later learn this was because of a drug "The Shark" gave her — like many plot devices in this book, the villain found one of those magical drugs that neatly erases someone's memories over a very specific period of time, and does so with great effectiveness but having no other long-term effects.) Somehow this led to her becoming a Virginia state trooper, with a hobby of rescuing other teen runaways, one of whom she is about to adopt. Oh hey, guess who's going to be kidnapped by the end of the book?

The love interest is your Standard Issue Alpha Male Love Interest — ex-soldier, ex-FBI, aloof and kind of a jerk-ass when Riley had a one-night stand with him years ago, but naturally it turns out that that was just because he was going through some "difficult times." He actually felt a real connection with her and of course when they get back together there is a turgid sex scene and he proves he's a big strong cuddly protector after all.

Incidentally, he works for a private agency called Shield Security, which seems to have the budget of Marvel Comics' SHIELD despite having no apparent sources of income since the owner is willing to send his employees off on raids and rescue missions for troubled teen runaways with no assets.

So what really ticked me off about this book? A little thing, really, but it really ground my gears. So, the premise is that this serial killer called "The Shark" likes to trap gamblers into playing a poker game with a woman's life at stake. If the gambler wins, he gets a big payout and the girl lives. If he loses (which he always does), he has to kill the girl while the Shark watches. The Shark is apparently rich enough to have hideouts blanketed with electronic jammers and an army of minions who can go out and threaten all the loved ones of his victim so that they have to carry out the terms of the agreement or else. All of this is melodramatic and improbable, but whatever.

Being a poker player, what I fixated on was the author's use of that old trope where you can win any given hand of poker by being really, really good at poker. That it's your "nerve" or "determination" or guts that win a game. That is not actually how poker works. I mean, yes, you need nerves and determination to make correct decisions despite the wild swings that occur over the course of a poker career (or even over the course of one poker game) — "running cold", as players say, can push someone into making bad decisions, while a player who's "running hot" (getting lots of good cards and lucky hands) may become overconfident and reckless.

If you're a chess grandmaster, you will absolutely beat an inferior opponent every single time. If you play someone who is much, much better than you at chess, it is quite plausible that you could lose one thousand games in a row against them. (Though after a thousand games, you should have gotten somewhat better...) This is not the case in poker. I don't care how dangerous or scary a poker player you are, poker is a game with very high variance — meaning, luck plays a large part in the outcome of any given game. Being a good poker player involves reading opponents, but also being very good at calculating probabilities, and winning more often than you lose over the long term. Any random person could sit down and play the world poker champion and win any given hand, because sometimes that's just the way cards fall. Poker is a game of odds. Luck is short-term; skill is long-term.

Why am I going on about this? Because the author sets up The Shark as this opponent who apparently has only ever been beaten once. This is considerably less likely than a protagonist who supposedly has never picked a bad stock.

In the climactic game (which is 5-card stud, a version of poker that hasn't been played much in the U.S. since the 1970s and was considered pretty old-fashioned even then), the Shark's opponent turns up a four-of-a-kind. That is almost the best hand in poker. It's an extremely rare hand — the odds are over 4000 to 1. The only hand that beats it — a straight flush — has odds of over 72,000 to 1. So of course that's what the Shark turns over.

The scene is written as if somehow the Shark did this because he's just such an awesome player, but what skill there is in 5-card stud is entirely based on calculating probabilities (you can't even bluff, which makes it a pretty boring game to watch, which is why Texas Hold'em is now far more popular), and winning over the long term. The even dumber part is that the "playing for your life" conditions were stated to be based on the outcome of one hand, which made the "betting" that occurred during it pointless. It would have been about equally dramatic if the Shark had just flipped a coin for the outcome.

Yes, I know, trashing a book because the author is terrible at understanding poker may seem unfair, but honestly, pretty much everything about this book read like an author who had a premise and wasn't going to let verisimilitude about anything get in the way of the story (or the heroine's HEA with Mr. Alpha). So bleah.

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