The Book of Beloved – Carolyn Haines

This is probably going to be one of those negative reviews on which people feel some compulsion to leave chastising comments for being too critical. Two words: Don’t. Bother. It looks like quite a few other people loved this book.

I did not.

I made it about halfway, and finally decided to give it up as a lost cause. And this surprised me, because ages back I read at least a couple of the author’s cozy mysteries and enjoyed them greatly. Either I was less cranky then, or the period setting here hurt the author’s style.

Dialogue was stilted – I can’t actually imagine someone, even in more florid 1920, saying “Ten thousand soldiers, mostly Confederates, died in that ill-conceived battle.” The author just doesn’t seem to trust her reader, hammering home her points – “The hair on my neck tingled, as if a chill wind had blown against me, but there was no wind.” “Casualties were so high the dead were held upright by the press of bodies. There wasn’t room for the dead and wounded to fall down.” Redundancy is the rule.

And it was thoroughly annoying that every time Raissa wanted to get information from her acquaintance at the soda shop (which she returns to over and over for Coca Cola like an addict – was there still cocaine in Coke in 1920?), she had to spend a page wheedling her into talking. Better, it seemed like every time she got the girl to the point where she’d tell whatever it was she was meant to tell, they’d be interrupted, and then the whole process would start all over again a couple of chapters later.

There are many examples of apparent non sequiturs: a marble statue is “lifelike and alive”; a mockingbird’s song reminds main character Raissa of Hansel and Gretel (why?); questions batter at her forehead “like the wings of a moth against a streetlight”; someone is butchered and killed, in that order. Someone was seen to fall through a window, “seemingly without provocation”, which wouldn’t have been my choice of words. One or two or even a few incidences wouldn’t have been impossible to overcome, especially if there had been no other problem, but the constant stream was tiresome.

There’s more, actually; the time period felt like a very uncomfortable fit – like someone trying to wear clothes tailored for another person. Exclamations like “bee’s knees” and – heaven help me – “hotsy totsy” pop up here and there, and they stand out like polka dots. They don’t blend. I’ve said it a million times: when I trust a writer they can get away with murder. When a writer loses my trust I’m going to give the stinkeye to anything remotely questionable. And here, in this period setting, I looked askance at things like “hacks me off” and referring to a man as “gay”. I’m not going to take the time to look them up – I’ve had to do it before for the latter, and I’m fairly certain that “gay” was not commonly used as a synonym for “homosexual” until decades after this book takes place. I could be wrong. But it doesn’t feel right.

And it’s the context of those last things I’m complaining about, too. Both come from Raissa’s mouth, and the way she is drawn seems counter to slang like “[that] hacks me off” and casually calling someone gay. Would she, a “gently” brought up young lady, growing up in comfortable means in a time period in which women were sheltered and protected from anything her menfolk might think was ugly or inappropriate, even know about homosexuality in 1920, much less identify a gay man based on nothing more than his style, much less have no hesitation talking about him in 20th century slang with a man she barely knows? No – it was all off.

(I’m assuming that simple errors – like the excerpt from a letter dated in December and then immediately mentioning that it’s November, and the fact that that’s not how a caul … works – will be picked up at some point. I hope.)

So the writing was less than enjoyable; that was one major drawback. Bigger, though, was the fact that I began to develop an active dislike for Raissa. She comes off as much younger, less mature than she describes herself. The voice in which she speaks is much more that of a teenager than of a woman in her twenties who has been married, lost her husband in the Great War, and has been earning her living as a teacher for some time. She describes herself as an aspiring writer, and talks about it a great deal, but little of her process is shown to the reader, and somehow it just doesn’t feel credible. She’s …

She’s kind of a twit.

Her goal in life is to write Poe-esque tales of horror and the macabre, and so – for the experience – she goes off to a séance. The medium’s assistant greets her with some basic information about herself (she and her companions have come on a journey because of an interest in spirit communications!), and she responds with a childishly eager – “thrilled” – “Are you psychic? Did a spirit tell you?” Uh, no. You’re at a séance, so the interest can kinda be assumed, and the tickets were booked in advance by someone from another state. She’s so moronically credulous in this entire scene that I wanted to slap her – and it puts a dent in her credibility elsewhere in her claims of seeing the handsome ghost that traipses about her uncle’s grounds. (Of course the ghost is handsome. And the one the uncle sees is a beautiful woman. Naturally.)

Some of it might have come off better if the book had been in the third person. As it is, though, with Raissa telling the story, it just made me a little embarrassed for her that she so obviously showed herself the best possible gull a medium ever had. She’s going to buy anything any con artist tries to sell her, and pay top dollar. Also, it just seemed highly improbable that what was incredibly, blatantly, ridiculously obvious to me – to wit, that she immediately attracted not one but two suitors in the first pages of the book – was a complete surprise to her. She is just astonished that her uncle’s lawyer, Carlton, is drooling over her – but when she realizes it she almost immediately decides that he’s a bit of all right himself.

And then there’s the other man who has eyes for her, Robert, for whom she gives every sign of falling head over heels. Then he, shall we say, passes out of the story, and she finds out some unsavory things about him, and has no problem changing her mind and forgetting she cared in less time than it takes to write it.

I think what played the biggest part in my decision to drop the book was a basic difference in opinion between Raissa and me regarding fake mediums. “What he did—giving information on departed loved ones—brought comfort to those he ‘read’ for. While it might be slightly unethical, it was not cruel or mean.” I could not disagree more. I work with people who have suffered terrible losses, and who have spent absurd amounts of money going to a psychic who landed them like gaffed salmon. If someone can easily spare the money, and the process gives her comfort, then I wouldn’t want to be the one to pull open the curtain to reveal the real Wizard of Oz – but in my opinion taking advantage of people in this manner is reprehensible. Part of what outrages me is that it’s all designed to bring someone back to see the medium over and over, and that not everyone can spare the money easily – some people just need some kind of reassurance so badly they’ll do things they can’t really afford to find it. And the odds are pretty strong that it’s all a tissue of lies. I find that offensive. False hope is an ugly thing – and false comfort is just as unpretty. Basically, there’s a very special place in hell for someone who fleeces grieving people out of their money. Toasty.

*hops off soapbox*

So …all in all… DNF. The only reason I would have finished the book was to see if that title – and that really odd series title (Pluto’s Snitch?) is ever explained. But I can live without the answer.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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