I've read a few of Hess' Claire Malloy books, and this series appears very different, in several negative ways. Or maybe I just got the lamest book of the Maggody series.
Arly gets roped into chaperoning some horny teenagers up at a youth camp for a week, where they mess around, scream, fight, and build a few bleachers. Some cute guy wanders in now and again, and several of the locals at the nearest town and among the Moonbeams have secrets that Arly must learn. And for some reason, a handful of people back in Maggody, 75 miles away, get subplots completely unrelated to the murder. Go figure.
Book themes: everyone either is horny or believes everyone else to be horny; people who have never lived outside Maggody/Dunkicker are uneducated, inbred backwater hicks with thick accents and mental faculties that run slower than molasses in February; all religious people have something to hide/are hypocrites, and the protagonist, being an atheist, is the only sane person around.
I get that this is supposed to be a comedy, but I couldn't ever find the groove where anything that happened in the book amused me. I expect it's just a cultural gap I couldn't bridge, not being familiar with the Southern school of thought. Between hillbillies and the Bible Belt, I'd imagine that a lot of the humor in the book was self-deprecating. But it all felt foreign to me.
I couldn't find much reason to like Arly. All of the youth group kids and chaperones seemed to be little more than caricatures, reduced to a single overblown feature. I had no idea why the book followed characters who had nothing to do with the murder plot or any of its subplots. Their scenes appeared in third person, and occasionally head-hopped. It appeared to be series creep, which I've only encountered in fantasy thus far: the author doesn't know when to stop writing about minor characters' lives (see WoT, aSoIaF), making subsequent books longer and longer and straying further from the central plot.
The plot itself was generally sufficient, but between the preponderance of teenage histrionics, religious freak-outs and other minor distractions of similar caliber, it was hard to make room for the actual case. In fact, the actual guilty party and their motive made for quite an awesome plot. Unfortunately, the reveal was pretty well buried. The dramatic conclusion was related by one character through flashback dialogue.
Lowbrow comedy and murder do not mix for me. Give me Dorothy Cannell's Ellie Haskell any time, but I'm just not the target audience for Arly and her town of Maggody.
1 of 5 stars.