by Jane Haddam
15 January 2006 book review
Warning! This review contains some potential spoilers.
This story concerns an apparent suicide, followed by murder, over Easter week in the fictional Colchester, NY catholic parish. The book is apparently part of a series, as there is a byline on the cover which says "A Gregor Demarkian Holiday Mystery." To a non-Catholic reader, the author seems to know her Roman Catholic Easter holidays well enough. However, I don't think I'll be looking for any more of the holiday mysteries.
The author writes nicely enough, with the occasional amusingly perceptive turn of phrase: "Judy Eagan was one of those bright women who secretly thought she wasn't really bright. Faced with invincible stupidity, she usually thought it was being put on to annoy her. " Unfortunately most of these cute perceptive phrases are also rather patronizing -- and interestingly, the more vitriolic they are, the more likely they're about men.
As a few examples, we have the Cardinal portrayed as ignorantly self-righteous ("The Cardinal turned and walked away... swishing in his robes, ponderous and overfed"), a bit-part fiancée who is so spoiled and fatuous as to pass belief ("...[his wife-to-be] wanted to believe him capable of some strong emotion, any strong emotion. She wanted to convince herself he was alive"), and an assistant parish priest who is painfully dim ("...[he] rambled his way through one of his incoherent monologues").
While descriptives such as these go a long way to quickly sketch in relatively unimportant characters, it bothers me when one gender is consistently patronized -- it's insulting. Also, this feeling of authorial smug superiority seems to extend to all the religious characters. I don't like institutionalized religion, but I think we should critique it objectively, rather than superciliously mock its weakest arguments.
There were a few other writing conventions I wasn't wild about seeing. For example, the detective appeared to have a "problem schtick" designed solely for humor value -- whenever he wore ties they inexplicably ended up shredded. This works when it's actually funny, but when it happens repeatedly and without a reason, it's just vaguely perplexing.
Also, the book ended with a horrible attempt at humor. Again, when it's actually funny this schtick works, but when it's there apparently just to make someone look foolish I find it an annoyingly weak means of ending a story.
There were a number of other mystery conventions the author indulged in. For example, to my way of seeing it, it did not help any to have her protagonist perplexedly wonder why he was having the classic "collect all the suspects in the parlor to reveal the murderer" meeting. If he didn't like that particular fictional convention, why did he do it? If he wanted to demonstrate how the poison was administered, why didn't he just show people, rather than tricking the murderer with it into an overly dramatic revelation?
Furthermore, if it was so necessary to indulge in this bit of confessional drama, why was yet another following chapter necessary just to have the explanatory dialogue as to what had actually occurred during the murder?
Those are my issues with how the story's theme was handled. As it turns out, I had a few about the plot itself as well. For example, the first person to die appears to have had her middle name changed during the story: a priest addresses her by her full name at one point, and then she is mentioned again later by someone else -- using a different middle name.
Also, a critical point in another person's death is when precisely she started searching for a particular pamphlet. Unfortunately, while her actions are initially described as being quite a few hours after a murder, she's later described by another character as having started her search only minutes after the death.
My final quibble concerns setting. The author has someone describe a wild and impromptu drug party where some feral animals are involved, which occurred 20 years ago. Unfortunately it becomes rather clear the author does not really understand how drugs would affect the participants, or how feral animals behave.
This is a small point, admittedly -- the author could have had the character being deliberately vague, for example. However, I do not think having one's protagonist musing about how real murder mysteries are often vague and confusing is excuse enough for poor editing or lack of author knowledge.
For the above reasons, I can't say I enjoyed this book. I came to murder mysteries as an attempt to find fiction I could enjoy, where I didn't know almost immediately how the story would end. There are good murder mysteries, but I'm unconvinced this was one of them. It was an acceptable means to pass a few hours, but I won't be recommending it to my friends, nor shall I look for this author again.
11.14.04: Kelly's thoughts
(and my replies)
Oh thank you! Something for me to avoid. Of course, since I'd never heard of this book or author -- and the premise doesn't really seem all that interesting to me -- I'd probably have avoided it anyway. :D
It was a mystery set within Catholic religious ritual, which I find fascinating, the same way I like studying any peculiarly unfathomable human cultural ritual. ;)
How do you have so much time to read so many things??? I'm jealous!!
Uhmm... I'm not sure, but I do know I had to search out time for myself once I realized I wasn't reading much of anything any more, and was getting intellectually bored as a result. One thing I did was join a couple of book clubs so I'd have an official excuse to plan time to read. Hmm... would you be interested in an on-line book club, maybe?
I've been reading Laurell K Hamilton's Anita Blake Vampire Hunter series. Fun. Also Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum Bounty Hunter series. Also fun. Both written in the first person, which seem to be a very popular trick. Since all the mystery books I've read lately about female protagonists have been written in the first person, I'm beginning to find it a little annoying. No, now that I think about it, I find it VERY annoying when it's done badly (as in the case of a couple of books I've read that I can't even remember they were so bad), but it's ok when done well.
Oh, I loved the initial Anita Blake stories! Fascinating explorations of power and how it affects people. Plot-wise, they were also wonderfully surprising. Unfortunately the latter books have become soft-core porn, and that doesn't do much for me. Interesting... you're the third person to suggest the Stephanie Plum books to me. I'll have to try them.
11.14.04: Jim's thoughts
(and my replies)
Among the things I despise is Ritual Stereotyping. In "times gone past," men were always the heroes and women were degraded -- watch some 40s movies for examples. Well, the worm has turned. It seems that now women are the hero(ine)s and men are the idiots. Gratifying as this may be to some of the women who hated the previous stereotyping, it is just as bad.
11.15.04: Marc's thoughts
(and my replies)
Very Interesting. I have not read any of this series, and you are encouraging me not to start.
Um... I hope that's a good thing? ;)
BTW, most mysteries are parts of series (and have been since Sherlock Holmes), and nowadays the "detective" has a quirk. Besides often not being a detective per se, either private or official. Often they are just people around when people get murdered. All very suspicious, to my way of thinking.
LOL -- too true! ;)