Tour’s Books Blog

May 17, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: Death and the Chick Lit by G. M. Malliet

Having recently read and reviewed Death of a Cozy Writer, G. M. Malliet’s first book, I promptly bought and read her second British cozy, Death and the Lit Chick. Second books can be tough when the first was an unexpected gem. Readers now have higher expectations and will be easily disappointed. The concept, bringing together a group of classic mystery writers with a common publisher, most with moderately successful careers – some of which are on the wane, with the latest ‘chick lit’ mystery mega-hit writer has all kinds of potential. It gives the author a chance to show readers the ‘business’ side of writing, the jealousy, the struggle to stay on top, the fears and politely poisonous envy of newcomer phenoms. (Interestingly, Amazon rankings and Barnes and Nobel rankings are mentioned several times, so do NOT underestimate the importance of the #amazonfail event we just experienced!) The author reinforces the image by drawing parallels with how J. K. Rowling saved Scholastic Press with her Harry Potter novels. So here at Dalmorton Castle in Scotland we have one wildly successfully writer in a stable of ordinary ones getting fêted by their collective publisher at a mystery conference. I do find it curious that in both of her books G. M. Malliet chose to make a mystery author the victim. It would seem being a mystery writer in the UK is more dangerous than being a police detective.

The book opens with Kimberlee Kalder, author of the latest ditzy fashionista amateur sleuth mega bestseller, getting a manicure. Kimberlee sounds as shallow as her lead character, but you don’t make it big in publishing without the killer instinct. In Scotland, Quentin Swope pens a news article about the Dead on Arrival conference for mystery fans and would be authors for the Edinburgh Herald newspaper. Jay Fforde gets a call from superstar Kimberlee Kalder that leaves him hoping she’s willing to jump ship from Ninette Thompson to him, making him the top dog at the agency. Winston Chatley is wondering how he and his elderly mother will survive his writing drought. He’s started several books, but can’t get past about page 50. With no income, how will they manage? Joan Elksworthy a cozy writer and her friend and conference organizer Rachel Twalley are having tea at Fortnum’s where they talk about Kimberlee’s book – and Kimberlee, who Joan calls, “Pure poison.” Lord Easterbrok, owner of Deadly Dagger Press, sponsor of Dead on Arrival and publisher for all of the attending authors, contemplates black ink for the first time in years. He also contemplates the rumor that Kimberlee will break her contract and take her second book elsewhere. He’s hoping the award and bonus he’s giving her will put a stop to that. Magretta Sincock, a fading star of romantic suspense writing gets the bad news her US publisher isn’t picking up her next book. Lord Easterbrook invited her to the Edinburgh conference, so surely she’ll be kept on there! In St Germain’s restaurant in Cambridge DCI Arthur St Just was enjoying his weekly indulgence in fine dining and trying to watch the beautiful woman who sat eating alone surround by papers, apparently stood up by her date. Portia De’Ath (I know, just too cute for a mystery writer to be a De’Ath, right?) was very aware of him, and slightly amused by his trying to watch her, not knowing the two would meet again soon.

In the US, publicist B.A. King is arguing with author Annabelle Pace, who specializes in forensic mysteries, about touring small towns. They do not see eye to eye on his plan. Tom Brackette, a Cold War spy novelist of fading popularity unable to move with the changes in the geo-political scene, and his brow-beaten wife Edith discuss Kimberlee’s book, Dying for a Latte, that skewered people in the magazine publishing industry in roman á clef style. Tom isn’t taking Kimberlee’s fame and success well, but that’s not the only success he has trouble dealing with.

Up in Scotland at Dalmorton Castle, Donna Doone, the event coordinator, is working on her manuscript for a caveman murder mystery in hopes of being able to get some interest from the author’s or agents staying there. Her guests are arriving and even she sees the big man watching Portia De’Ath with longing. St Just is none too pleased to find himself at a mystery writer’s conference up in Scotland as part of a public relations effort. It was equally obvious that Portia was no fan of Kimbrelee – but then neither was the limo driver who wore much the same expression. Not even checked in and the woman was causing problems. Donna did not miss St Just’s stunned reaction to Portia’s presence.

The festering animosity among the writers hits a new peak at the dinner when Lord Easterbook gives Kimberlee a special award and thirty thousand pounds in a bonus check at a special dinner. The castle’s bottle dungeon figures into this as does Kimberlee’s prior association with several of the people in attendance. She was despised long before she became famous and began playing the part of the ditzy fashionista. Savvy, smart, determined, malicious, back-stabbing, vicious and many more adjectives were applied to her by those that knew her before and after she became famous.

As with Death of a Cozy Writer, Malliet has the murder committed in a setting where only those inside could commit the crime. Here we have a castle surrounded by a moat with drawbridge only access that operates on an electric motor. A power failure caused by a bad storm while the drawbridge is up does the trick here that the snowstorm did in her previous book. With the back-up generator down, folks are trying to get around using candles and the light from the fires. The guests sort themselves out and settle in for a ‘dark and stormy night’ with books and drinks when Margretta comes in screeching “It’s Kimberlee! She’s dead!”

At least the writers have the good sense to get St Just and not despoil the crime scene. The investigation discloses all the previous associations. As the investigation unfolds all kinds of information comes out, but the most important pieces are Kimberlee was one month pregnant and her husband shows up. Frankly, there are so many red herrings and petty jealousies that working out a clear reason for the murder is difficult. The who follows Agatha Christie’s pattern, but that was based more on guesswork on my part rather than clues. The why is less obvious.

St Just and the local CID people get along just fine and they’re happy to have his help, though the shrewd DCI Moor and Sgt Kittle and their men are quite competent, but barely put in even a supporting role, which was a disappointment to me.

I was left with the impression that St Just is patterned after Sir Roderick Alleyn, Ngiao Marsh’s brilliant Scotland Yard detective who was a member of the ‘gentry’. You get tiny bits of who and what St Just is. His sister is married to a Lord and he is apparently very well to do and has country home he uses on weekends, but he wants to be wanted for himself, not what he has. The things is, much of what happens between St Just and Portia is close to incoherent and I found it hard to generate even a modest liking for her as a person. Perhaps she was supposed to be prickly and independent, but she came off self-important and condescending instead. St Just STILL hasn’t gelled as a person. The pieces of his history give him some dimension, but he’s still like a puzzle with parts missing. St Just is even following the pattern of Sir Roderick who met and eventually married a woman he met on an investigation, a well known artist who had a model murdered. Despite the parallels, Malliet is no Ngaio Marsh.

The story was choppy at times. It has moments of excellence and then turns generic. The loud, abusive, overbearing spy novelist who thinks he’s smarter and better than everyone else, including St Just. The aging, flamboyant traditional mystery writer (I kept thinking of Angela Lansbury as Salome Otterbourne in Death on the Nile – just dressed in green.) that has so lost her originality she even recycles her own old plots. The too good looking agent that hopes to get Kimberlee as both a client and a lover.  Then her husband, Desmond shows up at the castle saying he heard the news on television and came racing up ASAP.

Throughout this investigation St Just is by turns awkward and incoherent when dealing with Portia. There’s an interesting conversation between them at the opening of the chapter titled Just the Facts.

“Count your blessings that I’m around,” said Portia. “It’s you who should be careful. Remember these people lie for a living: They write novels.”

Isn’t it rather condescending for a writer to say that to a Detective Chief Inspector? Her patronizing lecture continues with –

“Keep in mind,” she said, there holding up one forefinger as if lecturing a roomful of pillocky undergraduates, “that writers are determined, motivated, often highly organized – belying the notion of the scatterbrained creative artist. One has to be organized to withstand the long haul of a novel. They’re also driven, persevering, resilient, and – mostly – able to withstand a lot of setbacks, criticism, and rejection. Apart from the criticism and rejection part, I can’t think of a better definition for a methodical killer, can you?”

Not a pretty picture of writers, is it? Or of Portia’s attitude toward a well respected police detective who has made his living solving crimes and has likely forgotten more about investigations than a writer could even imagine, especially one who is a college instructor. St Just might be smitten, but I thought her self-important and annoying.

The solution was rather messy. I thought Death and the Chick Lit story was less well developed, though the mystery was a shade more complex. The book lacked the polish of her first outing though it did provide some interesting insights into the business of writing and publishing.

My Grade: C+ (3.5*)

Who would enjoy this book: Fans of British manor house cozies and writers like Jill Churchill and Joan Hess. The rating would be PG-13.

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