Maybe the Guy with the Mysterious Scratches and No Alibi Did It

I just finished an online class, so I’ve been giving my brain a much needed break.  I picked up a stack of mysteries from work, and I’ve been making my way through those.

When I want something light, I read “cozy mysteries,” which are mysteries that frequently feature some sort of theme (coffee mysteries, Sudoku mysteries, gardening mysteries.  One day we’ll talk about the absurd number of hobbies and professions that have been the basis for a mystery series) and usually have titles that are puns on the chosen theme. In these books, somehow the dead people are almost never the point.  Murder is mostly a puzzle to solve. I also only read mysteries written by women. I’ve made a few exceptions, but the last one I read is a pretty good example of why I tend to avoid the male authors.

It was a standup comedy mystery written by a guy who is a professional comedian. It was a weird mix of cozy mystery and attempts at noir. There were basically two women in the story, a sexy redhead and a sexier desert goddess. Both women slept with our hero—a brawling, Irish comic—but other than that, they didn’t DO anything. One of them actually orchestrated the murders, but she outsourced all the actual work of putting her schemes into action. *Sigh.*

So, I read books written by women because the chicks are always in the middle of the action. That doesn’t guarantee that I’ll like them, though. When I found a book called Ninja Soccer Moms, I didn’t have high expectations, but I read a few pages on Google books out of curiosity. I forced myself to read until our heroine got her shirt caught in a paper shredder, but that right there is a deal breaker. I’m pretty sure that’s neither funny nor possible.

I like Diane Mott Davidson’s culinary mysteries, so when I finished all of those, I tried another one: Cherry Cheesecake Murder by Joanne Fluke. In a small Minnesota town, Hannah, has a mother who constantly compares her to her perfect sister and a cat with tons of personality. Everyone loves Hannah and constantly praises her for being so clever. Two men are in love with her and fight over her in a nice, Midwestern way. When they both propose to her, she deliberates before realizing that she’s not ready to get married (even though, she’s *horror* in her 30s) and tells the men she’d like to keep dating them both. Then, they all meet up at a diner for pancakes. Seriously.

I figured out who the killer well before the rest of the characters did. Then, about 50 pages before the answer is revealed, the whole town seems to be struck by some sort of brain disease that makes them unable to spot the obvious. (I can’t remember specifics, typical logic might be this: “Why, he can’t have been seen kissing Mindy. He’s married to Sarah!”). So, if the killer’s identity wasn’t obvious before, it becomes clear by how hard everyone is feebly rationalizing that it can’t be that person. He was always quiet and kept to himself. He seemed so nice! That book was so horrible that I can’t believe I read another one in the series. Shame on me, I guess.

I just finished a dead-end job mystery, where it seems the heroine does a series of menial jobs for cash under the table in south Florida because she’s on the run from her ex-husband. In this one, she’s a hotel maid. The writing was a little heavy handed, and I knew when a detail was important because the narrator, Helen, would notice it, think about how it was odd, and then it would be dismissed as probably nothing. Definitely not a clue!

Bear with me for just a bit of back story. Helen is dating a perfect, wonderful, loving, faithful man. Her ex-husband—who sponged off his wife and had affairs for years—has come into town, looking for her. To distract the ex, Helen’s landlady fixed him up with a rich older lady because, naturally, after meeting once, they will fall in love and get married (which they do, in, like, a week). When Helen and her new man, Phil, spy on her ex and his new lady friend, Phil recognizes the woman as a known black widow. He actually says she’s THE black widow as if there’s only ever been one, adding that she’s a notorious serial killer.

Helen doesn’t quite get it. “Who did she kill?” she asks. That’s when I started noting the book’s crimes against me as a reader. Phil tells her the lady kills her spouses, and the chapter ends on that line as though there should be accompanying dun-dun-DUN music playing at that shocking revelation.

Other problems: altering a common phrase such that I read it twice before I recognized it. Also, this: “she wasn’t going to rub salt into her friend’s bruised heart.” Did this book have an editor and did that person know mixing metaphors is bad? In the end, there was one murder that wasn’t committed by the main, evil killer but by a woman who is terribly good and sweet (outside of breaking a guy’s face with a whiskey bottle). Sure, she killed the man, but he was really mean and evil and wronged her and, of course, blurted out the most horrible thing he could say in order to justify her killing him. Helen and the nice killer conspire to frame the other, bad guy killer since he’s dead now and did I mention he was really bad and the woman really, really sweet? Helen justifies letting her friend get away with murder (and $100,000 in cash) by saying the guy she killed was probably a terrible husband who was abusive to his wife, and the whole family was probably better off with him dead. Yeah. Meanwhile, her ex-husband married the black widow. In fairness, she tried to prevent the wedding, but couldn’t and after a brief period of feeling guilty, she decides that this situation, too, will probably work out for the best somehow in the end. Dude. I get that these people aren’t real, but I am uncomfortable with the logic at work in all of that.

Why don’t I just quit reading a book when I realize I don’t like it? I can’t. I have trouble not finishing books and movies. I still have a bookmark in Bleak House from where I put it down in 2003 so that I can pick up where I left off one day. I need to believe that I will finish it eventually or else I’d never have allowed myself to read a new book until I’d finished it.  As for just skipping to the end of a bad mystery, forget it.  I’m too curious, and I would always wonder what I’d missed.

The truth is, I also find it cathartic occasionally to read a terrible book. It makes me so angry, and I get fired up and rant about it to friends and occasionally toss it aside in disgust. It’s an outlet for emotions I don’t often get to display in polite society. I can get as mad as I want and yell at characters when they act like idiots. I can channel everyday frustrations into venting about clumsy phrasing or poor characterizations, and when I finish, I can close the cover and return it. It’s a little like therapy mixed with anger management, and because I use my local library, it’s completely free. Generally, I think it’s better to read good books, but every once in a while, nothing beats a really awful read.

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