Given that I’m plowing ahead on drafting the mystery novel during November’s Nano Possible challenge, and spent a good chunk of the end of October preparing for it, the reading list for the last month is shorter than usual:
The Paris Apartment, Lucy Foley
How to Kill Your Family, Bella Mackie
Skelton’s Guide to Blazing Corpses, David Stafford
The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Eva Jurcyz (currently reading)
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I’m a bit torn about how to handle spoilers in these posts. I personally hate them, so I’ll avoid them. However, I am dying to discuss some of these in more detail, so perhaps we can have a spoiler club in the new discussion threads and decide on which books we are analyzing in advance. Who’s in?
On to the thoughts on the books.
As predicted, I made it all the way through The Paris Apartment, but found that cleverness trumped character in this one. Despite needing a twisty and exciting plot to stay engaged, if I don’t care about the characters, the plot really doesn’t matter, as was definitely the case here. Plenty of people feel the opposite, given the tremendous success of her books, but I’d almost rather have amazing characters and a ho-hum plot, but I think that plays much better in a series than stand-alone stories, as Foley has specialized in. We could well shelve this one in thriller, as it carries some of those conventions, but there are dead bodies, so it is most definitely a murder mystery.
How to Kill Your Family was just too provocative a title for me to skip, especially with that eye-catching cover. I love a bit of humor in my mysteries, and so this one drew me in. Overall, I quite enjoyed it. This character is quite open about all her defects and the dual timeline of her in prison (this is in the first chapter, so not a spoiler, I promise!) and the memoir timeline of her retelling her exploits added tension and was a treat. I was with her all the way until the end. The most interesting thing for me, technically, about this book was the fact that Grace is a reliable narrator, but a deeply flawed one, which I found way more engaging than the trend in unreliable alcoholic female narrators that have populated books like Woman in the Window, Girl on the Train, and the glut of books with “Girl” or “Woman” in the title that we’ve seen left and right since Gone Girl.
But I digress. I will say that the ending, while believable, didn’t entirely sit right with me. This is one I’m dying to discuss in a Spoiler Alert thread, should anyone be game. Let me know if this sounds fun in the comments.
Let me open by saying how much I love the Skelton’s Guide series, which will soon become apparent. This book is particular proof of my comment above that amazing characters trump plot for me. Not that this installment didn’t have a mystery in it. In fact, it had several that were quite engaging. The contrast is that I love the recurring characters so much that even the mystery and it’s well-executed twists pales in my memory to the details of Skelton’s clerk, Edgar with tiny sensitive feet and a budding taste for furniture collection, his wife’s vendetta against smug tennis players, and his religious twin cousins’ adventures spreading the joy of Jesus through tango and song.
This series reminds me why I love a mystery series so much - the arc of the characters that stretches beyond any individual volume. It’s the same with Donna Leon, Louise Penny, Nicola Upson, and so many mystery authors I adore. When I finish a book, I always wonder what the characters are doing now. With a series, I get to find out, despite having to wait impatiently while the author works on the next installment. The moment I finished this book, I was ready for the next. David Stafford, if you read this, I hope you’re already cooking up new adventures for all these characters, and Rose as well, who had a brilliant bit of excitement in this story. Magic.
This series also has the advantage of historical details, which are included with a light but humorous touch as song titles, news items, and light context. I have gotten at least one huge laugh out of each of these books, which is a gift we all need very much these days.
I’m still reading this one, but am over halfway, so I’ll share a few in-process thoughts. Selected because I thought it was mystery, I’m not entirely sure I’d shelve it there. Is there a mysterious event? Yes. Are the conventions of mystery followed in this story? Not so much.
If you enjoy novels that contain a mysterious happening, this may be just the thing for you. Plenty of the conventions of mystery are present as well: problematic drinking, uncertainty about whodunnit in a small community, an escalating series of problems. But this story is just as much a play on expectations mystery readers bring to a book, as it just as often breaks the rules as upholds them. Liesl, the main character, is perhaps ill-suited to the role of sleuth in the same way she’s ill-suited to the director job that circumstances have foisted on her.
Again, the jury is still out until I finish reading, but I will report back with more thoughts once I do. The writing itself is lovely, with many beautiful images with a literary handling of language. If you like your books lyrical rather than gritty, this may be just the ticket.
Some news: I have added a paid subscription option for Oh! Murder. These monthly reading roundups will remain free, as will general thoughts on the genre and commenting on free posts.
In addition, I have a few treats up my sleeve just for the paid crowd:
A new podcast audio diary of my thoughts as I work through the first Iris Drake novel
Excerpts from the novel itself
Interviews with mystery authors, both as additional podcast episodes or written articles.
I am sure I will come up with more as this unfolds, but that’s your preview of coming attractions. It’s been a treat to explore my love of the mystery genre more in-depth through this Substack, and I only see myself wanting to do more and more here.
Thank you for being part of the community.
image: Still Life with Old Books, Eileen Bowling
How to kill your family sounds like something I’d enjoy...still worth the read though you didn’t love the ending?
"unreliable alcoholic female narrators" is my The Slits cover band. (yes, this is a real band)