|I enjoyed JoAnna Senger's debut novel (which she's been waiting to write for far too long) a great deal, even if I felt like I shouldn't. It has a horrible, if colorful, cover and it feels like she broke a whole lot of rules in writing it. My OCD and my subconscious kept triggering as if something was wrong, making it an odd read, but it's a good one nonetheless.
Perhaps I should attempt to define what it is, because it kept me on the hop for a while my first time through, trying to figure it out.
Senger herself calls it a 'dark murder mystery' and I suppose that's true. However, of those three words, 'murder' is the only one that's really beyond doubt as it revolves around a set of murders committed at Milady's Manor, a flamboyant hotel in the small Californian town of San Tobino. Milady's is a colourful place, each room decorated to a different theme, and someone is bumping off the clientele in accordance with those themes.
As the neatly alliterative title suggests, there is a darkness to it, but it's neither told as a horror story nor a thriller, even though Senger wouldn't have found it difficult at all to delve deeper into that darkness. It is a mystery in the sense that the majority of the key characters are tasked with solving the murders at Milady's. However, it's not a mystery to us for long because Senger quickly explains to us whodunit and doesn't wait too long before leaving us in no doubt as to why.
This led me to wonder if it was going to be a police procedural, with Detectives Karl Kelly and Vito Kostowski struggling to find anything that links the growing number of victims together. They aren't bad cops but this is small town California where murders don't tend to happen, so they're immediately out of their depth and they know it; but, they're still responsible for bringing in the perpetrator. However, we never focus enough on the cops to regard them as the driving force of the story, or at least the only driving force of the story, and the coroner and others who would fit into that procedural framework are kept at a minimum.
At one point it hints at becoming a legal drama, but it never does much more than hint, even within the courtroom. There's much more going on at this point in the story that keeps our attention even as the alleged killer is suffering through his trial.
What it really boils down to is a character study. We're here to observe, even as most of the characters we observe are busy observing themselves. We don't watch Kelly and Kostowski run through a literary take on 'CSI', we watch them flounder around trying to figure out what they're missing. Their eyes are well and truly open but they don't see what they need to. We're not puzzling with them because we know what they're not seeing, but we watch through their eyes anyway to find a realization as to why they're stuck.
There are a couple of other detectives in the mix too. One is a private investigator called Emma Denning, an odd but sharp bird whose years inside don't match those outside. She's in her mid-thirties but she dresses out of the Victorian era, without any reasons given as to why. It's just who she is and we watch closely to learn more about her during those moments when the cops call her in for assistance.
The other doesn't become a professional until Senger's second novel, but she practices her observational skills throughout, even solving an unrelated minor crime partway through. She's Hermione Daggert, a waitress at Milady's, whose diary entries are peppered through the book, especially those which talk about the two regulars who crop up again and again in each of the threads of this story. She calls one of them Lord Byron and the other His Grayness; both are keen observers too. This side of the story is as close as this gets to a cosy, though Hermione is neither the only major character nor the dominant one.
Given that this is all about observation, we can't fail to do that and see a lot more than just the story in the process.
The worst thing about the book is its presentation. Beyond the poor cover art, the proofing is substandard, with a wildly inconsistent use of smart quotes; the name of one of the lead characters is even missing a letter in the back cover blurb. On a more subjective level, the headers are too prominent and the indents too deep. The headers are centered but the footers pushed to the outer margins. My British schooling even rails at the Oxford comma in the book's title.
Another thing that many may see as a negative, but I don't, is the consistently changing point of view. We don't look at this story from any one perspective. Karl and Vito's investigation is one thread, told entirely from Karl's perspective in the third person. We're also given two other perspectives in the third person, from a husband and wife whose lives are moving further apart. Hermione's diaries, however, are told in the first person. This odd mixture of perspectives isn't what most readers are going to expect and they may well find it awkward. The odd concept of justice that Senger plays with may not meet all tastes either. However, I particularly appreciated all of this for being notable bit of fresh air in a formula-ridden genre.
The strongest part is undoubtedly Senger's insight. Any character study lives or dies on its writer’s insight and I'm happy to underline how well she does. It's a good job because we're really observing her observing her characters observing other characters and that sort of nesting has to be done right or it'll all fall apart horribly.
I'd highly recommend that, if you're a mystery buff who wants something a little different from the formulaic norm, you look past the gaudy cover of this book and see if it shakes up your expectations of what you'll read in the future by showing you how the rules can be broken without sacrificing value. I've just enjoyed it as much on a return visit to prepare me for Senger's second book 'Reservation Ravaged' (click here for review.) ~~ Hal C F Astell