Review for A Conventional Corpse, by Joan Hess

Claire Malloy, owner of the Book Depot bookstore, finds herself suddenly in charge of a weekend murder mystery convention when the organizer is hospitalized. Five mystery authors, strong personalities intact, swoop into town, clashing with each other, their B&B owner, and a surprise guest who crashes the convention: their agent. A local girl crashes her car on the way home from the first night of the convention, but it's more than just a simple accident. And then the theories get really creepy, as the authors begin to speculate on death and murder as only they can.

While I generally enjoyed this book for the mystery convention concept, I wonder whether Ms. Hess wrote it on a dare, or possibly as a cry for help, or even as a satire on the ins and outs of her own genre. I'm probably kidding about the cry for help, but this one line from page 227 makes me wonder: "Authors are powerless in the overall scheme of the publishing industry." She's right, you know. It's one of the reasons successfully published authors are going indie in this new era.

The characters in this book were well done: the authors, naturally, overpowered everyone else except Claire, who, while she confessed to feeling lost and/or ignorant occasionally, held her own in the "sit down and STFU" line delivery category. The insulting in this book was delicious. And I enjoyed the little inside issues the authors had to deal with, such as being ignored by their editor, or having books trapped in a backlist, inaccessible to readers. Motives for murder abounded.

The only character who felt flat was Peter Rosen. There tried to be a whole subplot between him and Claire, but with the vivid author characters dominating the book, it came across as reduced to a series of similar "I'm not talking to you" conversations and forced insertions of baby/babymaking references.

The plot itself, as I said, was fun. But it felt pretty unrealistic, even more than the usual serial cozy plot. A handful of bestselling mystery authors popping into a tiny town? Hmm. The subplot with Peter wasn't terribly gripping, but the one involving Arnie was surprisingly endearing, and had a tie-in with the Peter-Claire subplot.

The end was disappointing, however, and in a way I've found disturbingly often in the cozies I've been reading recently. SPOILER The killer is urbane, collected, makes no attempt to flee or fight, is in fact an adorable old woman. In addition, other characters come up and thank her for this or that, or try to persuade her not to confess, while she's actively confessing. She seemed to indicate she'd lie about what happened, and she may or may not have been poisoning herself with the tea she was drinking the whole time. END SPOILER And that's where they left it. That's too cozy for me, really. Consequences, people!

One thing that came across as a little jarring was the tendency for the authors' thought processes to leave so much assumed between the lines, in contrast to the rest of the plot. Whenever they'd talk amongst themselves, you'd have to fill in a few blanks around their dialogue in order to keep up. Which was cool and made sense; their job is to think on that level. But the rest of the book was more simply written, and as a result, the "regular" characters seemed a bit slow.

And do not let me forget to mention the gaping plot hole that pretty much destroyed the credibility of the first killer's motive! SPOILER In sum, the first killer taught the first victim in college years ago, and apparently saw one short story of hers in particular. Fast forward several years, to where the first killer, now an editor, has apparently used some details gleaned from that short story to pump up a new mystery author's debut novel. When she meets up with her old student unexpectedly, she realizes she needs to kill her before she gets her hands on that debut novel, on sale the next day, because it'll somehow expose the killer/editor as an idea thief. I'm sorry, but that's just nonsense. The novel clearly stated that the first victim learned all sorts of interesting stuff like forensics and police procedures AFTER the killer had moved away from town. Also, she's had ten years to work on that short story and expand it to a novel. Surely the mystery genre suffers from the occasional trope just like every other genre. I completely fail to see what fully formed plot idea could have been stolen from a short story ten years previously, and which would still be immediately recognizable to the original writer and drive her to sue, let alone win. END SPOILER I actually re-read parts of the book, trying to figure out if I'd missed something, or if I'd misunderstood the motive/timeline. Nope.

The writing was so tight that it seemed to tear in a few places, leaving a gap just a bit wider than I enjoy crossing to continue the story. I also counted several typos of the sort that are also words (a for at, Rose for Rosen, etc), and a couple of completely omitted words, which for me really detract from the enjoyment of a book.

Overall, a fun read with the mystery convention in town, but the authors' vivid and weighty presence seemed to unbalance the plot and the writing both.

3 of 5 stars.

1 comment:

  1. Actually, I think it's worse than you thought. I got the clear impression that Laureen was confessing because she was already dying from a degenerative disease and that one of the other authors did it. In fact, I felt that all of the other authors knew who had done it and that it was Allegra- leading to the comments about how Laureen would never have left the manuscript on the bench, the thank you, etc.
    In addition, Ammie had written a real novel that Roxanne had stolen- the one she was discussing at the convention was a new and improved novel, not the only one that she had written (she had piles of notebooks and thousands of pages).
    Is knowing that the real murderer (who perhaps did it in a fit of passion?) will get away with it and that a nice (already dying) old woman will take the blame even worse than what you had thought?