Justified (A Madison Knight Novel), by Carolyn Arnold, is unbelievably bad. I don't mean that hyperbolically; I kept reading all the way to the end because I really couldn't believe it could actually be that bad.
I'll start with the plot, because it's the least egregious part of the whole thing. Essentially it's a Law & Order episode; The dullest Law & Order episode ever. Or one of those crimes that you don't actually see on the show but you assume they're solving off-screen.
The victim is a woman. She is a bad person because she is sexually promiscuous – and there's condoms in her rubbish bin! Also, she has a magical computer program (which she stole somehow) that allows her to make any business more efficient and therefore profitable. She's been making money by finding failing businesses and investing in them, making them profitable, then forcing the original owners to buy them back from her because of a loophole in the contract or something.
It should be noted that she actually saves these businesses, the original owners get to keep their now successful business and profit from her magic program. She just gets a one-time payment when the business starts to turn around. Somehow this is ruining people. It is a mystery. Also, part of her process is to sleep with the business owner and ruin his or her marriage, because bad person, sexually promiscuous, see above.
And everyone hates this woman, but are still friends with her, sleeping with her, working for her, etc. Because of reasons, I guess. Solving this crime should be a cakewalk, because there are only half a dozen suspects and the police have, amongst other things, DNA evidence. But for some reason they have to work this case non-stop, staying late and coming in early. Also it's Christmas, but don't bother remembering that, it's not relevant to anything. I think the author might even have forgotten after the first few chapters.
So why does such a simple case take so much work? Because Madison Knight is the worst detective ever. Actually, not only the worst detective, she's just the worst. She is completely unlikeable. She is always grumpy, angry and aggressive. I think some of it was intended to come off as playful banter, but it absolutely doesn't. She's just terrible. Other characters (her partner, the CSI woman, her boyfriend) apparently like her, but there is no indication of why they should.
Some of Madison's unlikeable nature is definitely supposed to be intentional, but I think much less than is actually evident. The whole thing with her boyfriend is a perfect example. She's seeing this guy, but insists that they keep it casual and remain free to see other people. Neither of them actually are, and he suggests that they should agree to only see each other from now on. But Madison's first boyfriend cheated on her so she's decided to never trust a man again, and so she kicks him out of her house and refuses to talk to him for days.
She later sees him with a woman and assumes that he's got another girlfriend, but it turns out it's actually a family member because of course it is, it always is, this is a plot copied from every terrible sit-com ever. It absolutely should have been a new girlfriend though, because that would mean that he'd decided not to stay with someone who has no redeeming qualities.
And it's not just her boyfriend she's a dick to, she's constantly insulting (or actually hitting) her partner. I think this was meant to come across as banter, but it's all completely one-sided and comes across as aggressive and mean-spirited. And she's constantly guilting him into working late (even though there's no apparent reason to do so) and can't seem to understand why he wants to go home and spend time with his family.
This leads to constant complaints in her inner monologue about how no one appreciates her and everything is so complicated and difficult (which it isn't). The situation with her boyfriend is entirely straight-forward and the only problem is the one she created. The case is just an ordinary murder. It seems like the author thinks that any murder is reason enough for the police to work 20-hour days, but these are homicide detectives. It's always murders for them. That is their normal, everyday job.
And speaking of homicide detectives, did I mention that Madison is a bad one? For one thing, she can't stand the sight of blood (which you'd think would be a handicap in that profession) but apparently it hasn't held her back. The far bigger problem though is that she can't stop being an arsehole, even for a second.
When questioning a witness or suspect, Madison will interrupt them right before they say something useful, to either ask a completely pointless question or just to insult them or accuse them of something. And that's not even my interpretation, her partner complains about her doing it, and yet she has supposedly solved every case she's ever had (except one, because no one's perfect).
If it's starting to sound like Carolyn Arnold doesn't even know as much about how the police actually operate as the average Law & Order viewer, well, we've barely scratched the surface. I've mentioned that this case takes many days to solve (and that those days are long) but surprisingly little actually happens during them. The events of the book could easily happen during the course of a day or two (and just normal work hours at that), other than the forensics – but in reality that would take much longer, and no cop story ever deals with that realistically.
But a conversation that could clearly have lasted no longer than five minutes will be said to have taken two hours. Some days they seem to arrive at work, drive to one location, talk to someone, and then it's the next day. There's no indication of where all the time is going. It's like the author just doesn't understand how long things take.
She also doesn't seem to understand clues or deductions. Sometimes characters will compliment each other, like “How astute!” “Ah, very clever!” but the things that prompt these responses are always incredibly obvious. If you're writing a story, you know the answers in advance, so it's actually not that hard to make characters seem smart by having them figure things out with only a few clues, but somehow Arnold repeatedly fails to do this.
Conversation is another weak point. Talking to Carolyn Arnold must be like talking to one of those chatbots, like Cleverbot or Eliza. It's all non-sequiters and abrupt changes in topic and tone. Madison's internal monologues are like this as well – a thought about a suspect transforming half-way through into moping about her boyfriend or dog.
And I can't let this go without mentioning the dog. Madison's partner gives her the dog, which she doesn't want. She proceeds to lock it in a cage in her apartment while she goes to work, takes it outside briefly when she gets home, then puts it back in the cage while she's sleeping. I think it's supposed to show how she starts out hard and cold but softens up towards the end, but she doesn't. By the end of the book she's still just keeping the puppy in a cage and ignoring it. But she's thinking about maybe taking it to obedience school one day, I guess.
Finally, there's the use of language and formatting. The book is largely free of typos or OCR errors, so it's clearly been proofread, but if there weren't an editor credited I'd assume it hadn't been edited at all. The text in conversations is formatted very strangely, with one person's action often being immediately followed, with no line-break, by another person's dialogue, so it's really hard to tell who's speaking. And it seems like the author was trying to sound smart by using words she wasn't really familiar with, because there are a lot of places where the word used doesn't mean what she clearly thought it did. And you'd think that an editor would point out that “sergeant” is shortened to “sarge”, not “serg”; Madison is constantly on the phone to her superior, “the Serg”.
So you should definitely read this book, because it will give you a new level of appreciation for every other book you've ever read. It's like a master class in how not to write a novel. Or at least a clear demonstration of why you need to hire a competent editor.