I’m often hard on cozy mysteries. They’re so much of fun when they’re done well – which is why, despite all obstacles, I keep reading them – but when one doesn’t live up to expectations, I can’t help but point out why.
The good news first: Leslie Nagel writes well, in terms of formation of sentences and structure of story. This was a quick read, and not awful by any means; the setting was good and the two main characters had some life to them. The climax was climactic. It was mildly funny in places. Hence two stars instead of the one I’m tempted to drop.
The bad news … Some of the characters were little more than a collection of characteristics representing a person. I was a bit disappointed in the stereotyping of the main character’s good friend who happens to be gay (also called, by one person, “you know”.)
One of my biggest complaints is that there are just too many characters. If I had lots and lots of leisure time I’d make a chart to see whether there really were more people inhabiting this plot than others I’ve read recently, but I don’t – my point, though, is that at least two or three times in the course of 232 pages people came on the scene who were clearly not being introduced for the first time, and I said “Who?” My memory’s not the best, but I have never had a problem keeping track of what I’m reading. I am generally reading at least a couple of books at the same time, and always have done; right now I’ve got three going on the Kindle, one audiobook at work and one at home. I’ve never had trouble getting back up to speed when returning to a book before – but for whatever reason when this author expected me to recognize characters’ names, I failed. Whether there were indeed too many people in the cast, or whether I just wasn’t paying enough attention, I don’t know; if the latter, though, it was because my attention wasn’t held.
One other reason for my low rating of this book is that it commits several cozy mystery crimes, and in the first degree instead of any lesser felonies. The main character owns her own business, of course – I guess no one wants to read about an office worker or librarian or something who solves crimes? Or is it that no one wants to write about them? Perhaps because an employee of anyone sensible would be fired if they took as much time off to solve those crimes as most cozy heroines do? One of my pet peeves about cozies is their utter divorcement from reality in showing small business owners – usually tiny retail business owners – who somehow manage to have at least one full-time employee. Charley Carpenter somehow has two, though there’s no mention of a customer ever entering her shop in the whole course of the book (unless I wasn’t paying attention). Of course, there’s little chance for such a mention, since in the whole course of the book I think she’s actually in her store for … what, maybe ten pages out of the 232? She is so intent on snooping, on doing all the things she has been specifically told by her cop boyfriend that she should not, cannot do, on breaking and entering (what – it’s not wrong, is it?), that she seems to hardly give her not-exactly-thriving business a thought. (Of course, if she greets every one of her few customers with “What special treasure may I help you find today?” it’s kind of understandable if she has few return visitors. I wouldn’t go back.) Charley’s motivation for pretty much everything she does is weak and silly, and her insistence on proceeding with the stupid things she absolutely should not do is idiotic. And at times it endangers not only her own life, but others’. None of this makes me ever want to spend another minute with her, ever again.
I’ll say again what I usually say: I’m really good at suspending disbelief, if the author provides a strong enough antigravity device. You give me enough grounding in reality, or a complete enough divorce from reality, and – what’s the saying about having a lever and a place to stand? Give me a place to stand, and I’ve got plenty of lever to believe in dragons, or starships, or boy wizards, or caterers who solve mysteries. If the place you give me to stand in is too small or too unstable, my lever doesn’t work, and I will begin to list problems.
And for me Charley’s “business” is a problem. Her friends are a problem – of course she has a cop boyfriend. Of course the gay friend and the black careworker and the Middle-Eastern friend are (at least here in this installment) each a collection of stereotyping descriptors – swish, and huge-but-gentle, and dashiki, respectively – and not a whole lot more. There’s a stereotypical crazy old lady – but despite obvious red flags does anyone think to try to get her some help? Nope. She might be mentally unsound, and scared, and under the thumb of someone who at least mentally abuses her – but she’s got dirty orange hair, and she was kind of nasty, and her house is smelly, and there’s a murder that isn’t any of Charley’s business to solve! She’s forgotten in minutes.
There’s also a demi-villain in the mix who switches personalities so often someone ought to have called an exorcist. A podcast I listen to talks about the “Gumby-fication” of certain television characters, whose personalities depend on what might be needed by a given week’s script: one week misogynistic, one week brilliant, one week kind of dumb or ignorant, etc. This character does that, in one scene grief-stricken and in the next vicious, with no reason at all for the abrupt change. The sequence of emotions makes no sense.
And of course when someone in the cast starts throwing up suddenly and randomly I know exactly what’s going on. It’s the exact same thing as is going on in every other book ever written where someone who is not being poisoned is suddenly and randomly sick. There’s got to be a better way of telegraphing it.
But then, reputation for Nancy-Drew-ing aside, this Charley person and those around her aren’t exactly brilliant detectives.
Something I did not expect was the occasional departure from the cozy format that crops up throughout the book. I didn’t expect (or want) the PG-13-level sexy scenes. They’re far from explicit, but they’re still more than you see in most of this genre. And … did you know that the “f-word” can only be used once in a movie if it wants to avoid an R rating? By that rulebook, this book didn’t stay PG-13 for long.
The f-bombs, if I recall correctly, all come from Mitch, Charley’s cop boyfriend – who, I admit, has reason enough to swear, given his girlfriend. Their relationship is … nauseating. No, I don’t mean the sexytimes – though as mentioned they did feel out of place in this book; I mean the fact that Charley is such an idiot. She lies to Marc – isn’t happy about it, but decides she’s in the right and therefore does it. Twice. And then once the dust is beginning to settle from that, she blithely commits a first-degree felony. And almost gets herself killed. (Almost gets herself killed again, apparently, based on the references to past books.) Ya know, if you’re not a law enforcement official and you keep finding yourself in positions where your life is hanging by a thread, maybe you should a) make an effort to mind your damn business (literally – don’t let those employees I can’t believe you can afford twist in the wind) and avoid such situations, or b) give up your shop and go sign up for the police academy. I wanted to start a “Save Mitch” campaign, except that he’s kind of a jerk himself; at one point he thinks a woman is “pretty enough, but a bit too old and definitely too bossy for Mitch’s taste” – and that is not conducive to making me tolerate him. All is forgiven in the end – that’s hardly a spoiler, since it’s a cozy – but it shouldn’t be. There are some serious problems with this relationship. Again, the disbelief is too big to be suspended.
The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.