r/suggestmeabook: I want a cozy mystery steeped in publishing and fandom focused on solving a murder.
Publisher: Crooked Lane Books
Publication date: June 8, 2021
From the publisher: Meeting your favorite author in the flesh can be the chance of a lifetime. But for one unlucky fan, her plum place in line at a book signing will lead to her untimely demise.
First, let’s get the disclosure out of the way: I didn’t read the first book, so some of my issues might be solved by reading it. But it won’t cure all the ills I perceive in this cozy mystery.
tldr: Flat characterization; tell, don’t show; hard-to-swallow situations
Victoria Gilbert has posed a good puzzle. Most of the clues are there at the beginning, although the key clue isn’t given until toward the end. If your taste runs to plot uber alles, then you may be fine with this story.
I’m a character junkie, and this book just didn’t give me my fix. There was very little to distinguish among the characters aside from the initial physical descriptions and names. I was constantly having that moment of “Now, who is this again?” among a cast of less than fifteen (I think), which is a magnitude lower than the epic fantasies I have less trouble keeping up with the characters.
They all have the same voice. Granted, you’re getting everything filtered through the first person protagonist, but even so, I’m spoiled by first person protagonists who have the gift of mimicking the people around them. Charlotte, the amateur sleuth and narrator, tells us often that she was a high school teacher, and perhaps that’s what we’re hearing—she flattens everyone out with the same speech patterns, making them all speak proper, grammatical English.
“Sounds like a good beach read,” Ellen said.
“Definitely perfect for that. And it is written pretty well. The English teacher in me can’t fault Ms. Nobel on her writing.”Victoria Gilbert, Reserved for Murder
Not only that, Gilbert repeatedly violates the common mantra for fiction: Show, don’t tell. Again, in a first person narrative, I expect to hear the thoughts and opinions of the narrator, but I also expect to have enough to go on to make my own conclusions. Instead, many of the characterizations are made up of conclusory statements and it feels unskillful to write a description of a person in a way that the actions don’t speak for themselves.
For example, several of the characters are described as having bad tempers (as part of the reason they might be suspects), and yet the most I saw any of those characters get huffy was one who bangs his fist on a table. Okay, I said “several,” and it turns out there were only two. Seemed like more, perhaps because it was repeated several times and I didn’t have the names connected solidly to the characters (see flatness, above).
“She had a real bad temper, at least back then. The hair-trigger kind. She’d be all fine and cheerful, but someone would say or do something that ticked her off and bam!”—Damian snapped the twisted towel through the air—”just like that, she’d go off on them.”Virginia Gilbert, Reserved for Murder
Likewise, almost all of the background information needed for the solution of the mystery is provided in talking head sequences. There’s very little sleuthing involved, and people divulge the information in long speeches with little prompting. Little of the dialogue was just for fun, and when it wasn’t about the mystery, it seemed to often run to the mundane. Some of it was to set an atmosphere (“Would you like a lemonade?” appears to be an exceedingly common question in the summer in coastal North Carolina), but my overall impression was there was a lot of filler.
Let me get to the trickiest part of this review, something I feel I have to raise, even though I’m not really qualified to weigh in on as a white, older, middle-class female. Yes, it’s about the depiction of Black characters (I think they’re supposed to be Black—more to come on that). I would have loved to refer you to a reviewer who could, but this is an Advanced Review Copy from NetGalley, and none of the other reviewers on Goodreads (when I checked) self-identified as Black or any other POC, so I didn’t have that option.
I fretted about what to do about this, and posted about it to solicit opinions, and I can’t tell you whether the depictions are problematic. As I said in the previous post, I get that white authors have a dilemma—you don’t want to posit an all white world and erase POCs from the picture, but you also may be challenged in your depictions of those characters if you include them.
Let me be crystal clear on this: I AM NOT SAYING THE AUTHOR IS RACIST. I am saying that we live in a world that privileges whites, and that even the most well intentioned author in the world can miss the notes on this, because it is so very difficult to play the songs correctly. However, as one of the commenters on the post of doom mentioned, (I’m paraphrasing) even if there was no malicious intent (or even a positive intent), if the effect of the writing still promotes institutional racism, then there’s still an issue.
Anyway, the depictions made me raise my eyebrows, partially because of the way they were coded as Black. The flatness of character is a universal issue in the book, so it’s harder to say that they should have been excepted from the general shortcoming to be well-rounded. But the first one to come up, Alicia, is described as a “short, plump woman in her early sixties” without a job title, simply as having worked in the B&B forever. Because of the bigger problem of being trapped in my own whiteness in the world, I consciously process it, but I defaulted to thinking of the character as white.
But then there was this:
Pete and Sandy Nelson…always claimed I’d inherited Alicia along with the B and B. I suppose that was true, in a way, although it wasn’t a sentiment I liked to repeat out loud. Although I admitted that Alicia was integral to the success of Chapters, she was a person, and not some object my great-aunt could pass down, as she had the extensive collection of books that filled Chapters’s library and guest rooms.Virginia Gilbert, Reserved for Murder
I found it a little clumsy on first reading, but was pulled out of the story later when I processed that in the context of later statements, thinking, “Wait. Alicia’s supposed to be Black? What did I miss?” Am I supposed to realize that because she’s essentially Calpurnia for the B&B? Is it more racist to default to her being white if not specified? As you can see, it triggered my own concerns about how to be anti-racist, and I sought help in the afore-mentioned post and on Twitter.
It could be read as an attempt to be sensitive; it could also be read as an issue that it’s even been included. IDK.
Later, I was relieved when the narrator said this:
I frowned as I realized how little I knew about Alicia’s life before Chapters. Because you never asked, I thought, flushing with embarrassment. Perhaps I had treated her like something I’d inherited along with the house than a person with her own, independent life. At least, more than I liked to admit.Virginia Gilbert, Reserved for Murder
“So she’s going to show this as a character arc,” I thought. I can get behind that, even if I do still have some issues about how the two Black characters were coded, which, to my mind, raises questions about the extent to which they reinforce stereotypes.
But then the quoted sentiment was never followed up on. Perhaps in the next book? Maybe it’s supposed to be a flaw in the character, even if she’s supposed to be the heroine?
As I said, I can’t say anything about the Black experience or how Black readers might react, but it bothered me enough to raise it. I’d suggest referring the novel to a sensitivity reader specializing in race issues, as it may be an easy fix.
Wow. Glad to have gotten through that mess.
Last on my list of complaints is definitely the most idiosyncratic problem, and one I wouldn’t have downgraded the book on if it had been the only issue: things that I can’t suspend disbelief over. First there’s the neighbor who’s a retired spy. Again, I haven’t read the first book, so perhaps there’s a reasonable explanation for how she knows that, but the retired spy’s openness is just mind-boggling to me. I have relatives who were in various classified areas of the military, and they won’t tell their children, spouses, or parents any details, so I just can’t buy into anything but an absolute need-to-know.
Similarly, I have issues with the characterization of the police detective. She doesn’t sound like any I’ve known, but, of course, geography matters. All but one of the cops I’ve known were from large metropolitan areas in Texas, not a small-time PD in North Carolina. But it bothered me.
Believe it or not, the review is about to come to a conclusion. The writing is competent, but sterile, and the characters flat. I don’t get enough opportunity to observe the characters to determine who they are; the narrator or others mostly just tell me. Gilbert is good on plotting and descriptions of the environment, but that’s just not enough for me.