Women-led historical mysteries, ruined by the male romantic interest

I’m just so tired, y’all. Thirty years of overlooking or excusing bad behavior by male leads and I seem to have hit my wall. Negging is not flirting, condescension is not fondness, and ignorance is not protection. How hard can it be for a man and a woman to treat each other with fairness and respect, especially in a work of fiction? Both of these mysteries started strong, but got problematic far too quickly.

A Girl Like You

By Michelle Cox

A_Girl_Like_YouA Girl Like You features Henrietta, a beautiful young woman trying to find decent work to support her widowed mother and numerous siblings in Chicago during the Great Depression. She waitresses in increasingly risqué venues, following better money while trying to hide it from her strict mother. After the manager at one club is murdered, the handsome and charming (?) Inspector Howard convinces her to go undercover at an even shadier club to get an inside view on a possible criminal network that may have included the deceases manager.

Though young, Henrietta is smart, brave, and increasingly cares what the inspector thinks of her. Inspector Howard, for his part, realizes that his age and station make him unsuitable to court Henrietta, but deals with this knowledge by blowing hot and cold in a frustrating way, including withholding information pertinent to her safety.

The author really shines in capturing the time and place across different sects of society. The shine is tarnished a bit by Henrietta’s chronistic disgust in the face of lesbianism among the waitresses and showgirls, written with just enough emphasis that I began to side-eye the author a bit.

Still Life With Murder

By P.B. Ryan and Patricia Ryan

Still_Life_With_MurderThis novel also features a beautiful young woman, working her way up socially from a shadowy past of crime and poverty in Boston, just post Civil War. Nell is first introduced as the assistant to a rural surgeon, who had rescued her from her upbringing, but in the first chapter she is hired as a governess to an old-money Boston family. Through complicated circumstances, the oldest son of the family is accused of murder, and his mother entreats Nell to do some background investigation.

Like A Girl Like You, the scene-setting and most of the characters are very well done, but the oldest son is awful! Broken from his experiences in the war, William is an enthusiastic opium addict who would rather hang for murder than try to be agreeable to his family, and by halfway through the book, I was ready to let him. Unfortunately for me, but fortunately for him, I guess, Nell is filled with the zeal of saving an innocent man and becomes increasingly smitten. When William isn’t moping over his circumstances, he is purposefully misleading Nell and then scolding her (playfully?) for making assumptions.

I would have washed my hands of him completely and it just made me feel old and cynical. With this string of recent books with intolerable male “romantic” characters, I am feeling a bit demoralized in general, like the older I get the more books I won’t like since I’ve already experienced so many other, better books.

—Anna

Midnight Crossroad

A Novel of Midnight, Texas

By Charlaine Harris

Midnight_CrossroadI enjoyed Charlaine Harris’ True Blood series, both the books and the TV show, at least the first few issues of each, so I figured I’d check out her Midnight, Texas series. I watched the pilot episode and the characters and acting were all flat enough that I couldn’t stay engaged, but I was curious enough about the mystery itself that I decided to try the book.

Well, if the protagonist was blandly irritating in the TV show, he’s downright dislikeable in the book – self-centered, arrogant, and deeply uncharitable toward the other characters. Manfred is a psychic – mostly scam artist but with the occasional true sight, which is of absolutely no help in this first book – who needs to lay low for as yet unexplained reasons. The ghost of his grandma directs him Midnight, a simple crossroads of a town in Texas just chock full of eccentric characters.

I sort of assumed he was starting off unpleasant to create an arc of finally realizing his place among all the other supernatural weirdos in town, but it never really materialized. If anything, the other characters got increasingly unlikeable as the book went on.

We first meet Manfred’s landlord, Bobo, who initially seems attractive and pleasant, but then increasingly “naïve” to the point of stupidity. His girlfriend has disappeared, without leaving a note or taking any of her things, and he is currently bummed about being run out on. Of course the girlfriend is soon found dead in ditch, and his “aw, geez, I’m just so sad my girlfriend is gone, but there’s nothing to be done about it” attitude naturally makes him the prime suspect.

Manfred is our primary protagonist, but a good chunk of the book is also told from the perspective of his next-door neighbor, a self-identified witch named Fiji, who is quickly established as the heart of the community and I guess this story. She has been secretly pining for Bobo for years, and quickly mobilizes the community in his defense. I would have liked Fiji a lot more if she hadn’t had quite so constant an internal dialogue about how much she didn’t care that she was “curvy,” and “softer” than the other women in town.

Harris’ writing is always on the pulpy side, but this one seemed especially thinly sketched out, even for her. It was written just a few years ago, and I wonder whether her success in television has led her to focus more on that. With the concentration of varied ensemble of characters and sort of loosely tied together action scenes, it reads much more like the outline for a script than a novel to me. Unfortunately, it didn’t make for an engaging show, either.

—Anna

Women-led historical mysteries, done two ways

I’ve been on a bit of a mystery kick, lately (instead of blog-posting, clearly), and read a couple set in different periods but with strong female leads. I got them both for free through Bookbub deals, and I liked neither of them but for very different reasons.

The Rookery

By Emily Organ

RookeryThis is actually the second in a Victorian-era series featuring intrepid reporter Penny Green, but other than the awkward progression of her relationship with a Scotland Yard Inspector, I don’t think I missed much by jumping ahead. And by that, I mean I didn’t actually care enough to miss anything.

Through sheer happenstance, Penny is on the scene of a murder in the London slum neighborhood called The Rookery. She discovers that this is one of a string of murders that have been happening in the last few weeks, and when it appears that the police are not taking it seriously, she naturally decides to investigate herself, with the enthusiastic support of her newspaper, which wants the scoop. It really isn’t a bad premise at all, if only Penny wasn’t such a ninny.

Penny Green is outrageously bad at her job, and I was consistently appalled that the inspector gave her any credence whatsoever. However, not only does the inspector take her advice to an extraordinary and dangerous degree (considering how much she jumps to conclusions and then changes her own mind during the investigation), he provides her inside information which should rightfully get him fired.

Anyway, she is convinced that the wrong man is being suspected, has second (and third, and fourth, etc.) thoughts, but then is quickly distracted by a run-in with a Fagin-type figure: “I’ve given it a lot of thought since I met him and I’m certain he must be responsible for the murders. He’s an objectionable man.” That’s the kind of judicious reporting and police-work that I like to see!

When an eye-witness is discovered, she entreats the Inspector: “If the description of him is even remotely similar to that of Ed [Fagin-type figure] then he must be arrested.” To my fury, the Inspector doesn’t shut her down at once. In better-written mysteries, she would be a side character that serves as a comedic foil interfering with the actual investigation.

One O’Clock Jump

By Lise McClendon

One_Oclock_JumpOne O’Clock Jump is basically the polar opposite. It is the first in a series featuring Dorie Lennox, a private investigator in Depression-era Missouri. She is tough, smart, and deeply sympathetic, and she just can’t catch a break, which is what really did it in for me. In the first chapter, Dorie is tailing a woman for a job and follows her up a bridge, which the woman then jumps off. There’s no heroic rescue, just watching the body float away in the current, which is more realistic, I guess, but also solidly sets the tone for the rest of the book.

The woman, of course, is not who she seemed, and neither is the supposed boyfriend who hired the tail, and wants the investigation to continue, even though he had claimed it was just about infidelity. Dorie’s boss, the owner of the investigative agency, is slowly dying from a combination of exposure to mustard gas in the first world war and a broken heart over his deceased fiancée. Her closest confidante (though she isn’t particularly close to anyone) is a homeless man who sleeps near her boarding house. She has a sort of half-hearted love interest in a shifty reporter with suspect intentions.

It’s all very well-written but unrelenting in the grimness, so I’m in the difficult position of admiring the book but not exactly enjoying it. If there could have been just the tiniest bit of levity, I think I could have really liked this series, but I just can’t with this mood right now.

Night Drop

(Pinx Video Mysteries Book 1)

By Marshall Thornton

Night_DropI have been hesitating over this review for a while because Thornton writes predominately gay mystery/romances, which is definitely a niche market and not for every reader. The Pinx Video Mystery series is written for a wider audience, though, and is just so good that I have to recommend it. The first book of the series, Night Drop, begins on the night that officers that beat Rodney King were acquitted and riots broke out across LA.

The riots are only tangentially related to the plot, and the characters themselves are only vaguely curious. At first, this complacency was off-putting, but I remembered having the same sense of distance myself. As much as they seem so recent to me, the 90s were a very different time, with the racism and brutality of police and greater society only starting to become clear to wider population.

On the one hand, I wish this book had given it a little more respect, especially considering how often we are now reliving this on a daily basis, but on the other hand, Thornton really does a masterful job of capturing the (white, middle class) cultural feeling of the 90s. It is very strange to read a well-done period-piece mystery set during your lifetime.

Our protagonist Noah Valentine (other than his name, he is the quintessential everyman) has isolated himself after the death of his partner, spending his day working in the titular Pinx Video store, which he owns, and holing up in his tiny apartment in the evenings, only socializing with his neighbors, a delightful, somewhat older gay couple that are trying to take him under their wing.

The riots only vaguely break through his apathy, and only to the extent that they affect him. He reluctantly closes his video store for the day, and learns on the following day that the camera shop down the street had gotten burned down. He had a casual acquaintance-ship with the owner, and half-assedly tries to find out what happened out of a hazy sense of social duty and curiosity.

As they run across clues that don’t seem to add up, Valentine, his neighbors, and his neighbors’ friends become more drawn into the mystery, as well as the official police investigation. Of course, the official police investigation includes a handsome officer who may or may not have more than official interest in Valentine, but all three books in the series stay in solid PG territory.

Thematically, the book has an odd but very readable overlap of noir and cozy mystery genres. It is packed with amusingly odd characters, all of whom tend to shrug off the crimes around them in a sort of noir-ish existential malaise. I very much hope that this is an ongoing series, but book 3, which came out at the end of last year, had a somewhat more final sense of conclusion than the others.

P.S. – It wasn’t until I was telling Rebecca that all the books have titles relating to video rentals, that I realized that a video rental store might be the most 90s setting possible.

They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us

By Hanif Abdurraqib

They_Cant_Kill_UsHanif Abdurraqib is very smart and funny on twitter and instagram, but I was unprepared for just how deep his collection of essays would go. When Rebecca asked what it was about, I said “essays discussing different musicians and albums,” which is such the tip of the iceberg as to be completely misleading.

Abdurraqib is first and foremost a poet, and it shows in these essays. Every word is carefully chosen, which leads to very dense and evocative prose, and slow but engrossing reading. Just about every essay starts with a musician or album (ranging from Carly Rae Jepsen to Future*), and uses that music as an access point to discuss something about humanity or society that the music is trying to address.

As a black boy growing up in Ohio and super into the punk scene, and then an esteemed music critic trying to sell all his friends on Jepsen, Abdurraqib is well experienced in finding his own place in scenes that are not often created with people like him in mind. He talks about the tension that often exists between the artist, the art, and the audience, any of which can be alternately be welcoming or alienating. The funny thing is that Abdurraqib talks about music in such a way that I got all excited to actually listen to it, but then it inevitably wasn’t as interesting or complex as his analysis. So, while I didn’t get introduced to any new favorite musicians, I’m definitely keeping tabs on Abdurraqib’s future writing.

*It took me a good five minutes of flipping through the book to select two, since I kept being like, oh, I should mention The Weeknd; no, My Chemical Romance; no wait, Migos; or Fleetwood Mac, etc. etc. Abdurraqib has an awe-inspiring range of interests!

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

By Xiaolu Guo

chinese-english_dictionaryThis novel is described as “a novel of language and love that tells one young Chinese woman’s story of her journey to the West—and her attempts to understand the language, and the man, she adores.” I was expecting a love story, quite honestly, though one with a unique approach. It is, uh…not that.

The hook, for me, was that the book is written in Zhuang’s voice, and over the length of the book, the text itself becomes more mature as her English improves. According to the inside blurb, Guo used her own journals from when she first came to London as a reference, and the developing language is really interesting to follow.

The thing is, the relationship stuff is…rough. I spent the vast majority of the book stressed over this young woman in a foreign country with very little support, convinced that any minute, things were going to go dangerously wrong. I wasn’t completely wrong, either, but traumatic events are written in the same sort of wondering tone as everything else she experiences in the West, which lessened the stress a little, I guess.

Less of a story about love, Guo is talking about how our cultural expectations, and even our individual wants and needs, can interfere with relationships, even when people love each other. Our society often addresses sexual incompatibility in romantic relationships (so many letters to advice columns!), but Guo delves into something that is mostly overlooked: emotional intimacy incompatibility. Some people like a higher amount of connective-ness in their relationship than others, and if you are very mismatched, like the couple in this novel, it will be frustrating and exhausting for both sides.

Amnesty for unfinished books

I think we all try to finish the books we start, more out of principle than anything else.*  However, we always have books that just defeat us (you can see the ones that haunt us in our bios). Here, on New Year’s Eve, we say goodbye to those books from 2018:

Confessions of the Fox

By Jody Rosenberg

Confessions_of_the_FoxThis was on all sorts of Best of lists and the description sounded amazing; this was the quote from the New York Times review: “A mind-bending romp through a gender-fluid, eighteenth century London . . . a joyous mash-up of literary genres shot through with queer theory and awash in sex, crime, and revolution.” I like all of these things! This should be awesome! But even after multiple tries, I never made it past the third chapter. It was written in some of Olde Englishe dialect that my brain just wouldn’t parse at all. I feel like if I could have gotten over the hump and into the story I would have liked it, but I guess I’ll never know.

—Kinsey

Fear: Trump in the White House

By Bob Woodward

FearOf course, everyone was reading this book. In DC, naturally, but I think there was a mad scramble for it nation-wide. I don’t really buy books anymore, and the library waitlist was over 900 people, so I figured I’d probably get around to reading it in a couple years once the next big exposé came out. However, at Thanksgiving my dad said that I could borrow his copy, as long as I return it at Christmas. A month! Plenty of time, right?

Whew! The first 50 pages summarize the campaigns, leading up to the election, and just brought back how horrifyingly shocking November 8 was to me. Once we got past that, though, I was actually finding the behind-the-scenes details pretty interesting, similar to Game Change. However, it was still a slow read, and I had just reached Lindsey Graham convincing Trump to hire General Mattis as Secretary of Defense, when the news broke that Mattis was resigning. That was pretty much the last straw for me, and I decided that I just couldn’t handle trying to make sense of everything while it continues to change so frequently. I’m going back to my escapist fiction until at least 2020.

—Anna

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

By Sherman Alexie

lonerangerWith a title like that, how could I not want to read it? Also, the book is a 20th anniversary edition that was being highlighted at my local library as a recommendation from one of the librarians, and it’s about modern life on an Indian reservation. It’s a collection of 24 short stories, most of them only about 10-pages long.

I’m now on my third renewal of the library check-out because I’ve just stalled after the first two and a half stories. There’s no particular reason for me to not like them, I just find myself asking why I’m trying to read these when I’m not getting anything from them and I could be reading something else instead. But I keep on renewing the check-out because the introduction was excellent! It was also written by the author, but 20 years after the rest of the book, which might be why it’s more centered and entertaining. So, I recommend the introduction, and maybe while you’re at it, try out the rest of the stories, but for the new year I’m going to let myself give up on this book and just return it to the library.

—Rebecca

*Though as I get older, I’m more inclined toward the idea that life is too short to waste time on a book you aren’t enjoying.