100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #004
Dead Over Heels, by Charlaine Harris (1996)
Charlaine Harris was born in 1951 and toiled away in the lower reaches of commercial fiction until she hit it big with the Southern Vampire Mysteries, aka the Sookie Stackhouse novels, the source material for the well-known and well-received television series True Blood.
This is the fourth volume in the Aurora Teagarden mystery series and has a slightly unusual history. In 1996, the Southern Vampire series was some five years in the future; Aurora Teagarden was Ms. Harris’s only source of writing income, barring two very early non-series novels. (She was in the same year to introduce the first novel in her second series, the Lily Bard mysteries.) Anyway, the first edition of this book is Scribners US. The first paperback appears to be — I’m not absolutely certain — the book you see in the vicinity of these words, from Worldwide Library in 1997 (cited in Abe) or January, 1998, as it says in my copy. Since Worldwide Library was at that point in time a subsidiary of Harlequin Enterprises, that makes the first paper a Canadian edition.
Then came the success of True Blood, and all of a sudden you could have sold Harris’s laundry lists. The first US paper seems to be 2008, from Bantam (note that this is 12 years after US hardcover publication). There has been a British omnibus edition in two volumes containing all eight novels in the series, the full series in individual paperbacks from Gollancz, and a new hardcover edition from Bantam in 2012, no doubt for the library trade.
What’s important to note is that the traditional path of hardcover-to-paperback has been deformed here for whatever reason, and that no one was interested in this book in the slightest until 2008 when Harris hit the jackpot with True Blood.
About this book:
Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read is likely to discuss in explicit terms the solution to a murder mystery. Since I hope to persuade you to not read it due to its general awfulness, the point may well be moot, but I thought I’d make it.
Aurora Teagarden lives in the small imaginary town of Lawrenceton, Georgia. At the opening of this eight-book series, she works as a librarian and has an extra-curricular interest in “real murders”. Over the course of the series, by the time we reach this fifth book, she has dated a policeman, a priest, and a writer, but married a wealthy industrialist. Aurora — “Roe” — is wealthy in her own right, having inherited the property of a fellow librarian in book one.
As this book begins, Roe is lounging on the patio while the female half of her husband’s married pair of bodyguards is mowing the lawn. A low-flying plane buzzes by and a man’s body falls from it, embedding itself into the freshly-mowed turf. The body turns out to be that of a local police officer with whom Roe had had a history of disagreements, as has her female bodyguard. In short order other people in the town are attacked, all of whom have had public disagreements with Roe just before they died. Roe, in the meantime, deals extensively and in detail with her personal life while the investigation goes on around her. It turns out that Roe has had a secret admirer for a long time who has decided to kill people who have the bad luck to come into conflict with Roe. The climax of the book comes when the admirer is holding Roe’s husband at gunpoint in a cemetery and is forestalled by Roe stabbing him, then hugging him until her husband can hit him with a gun butt.
Why is this so awful?
There are two things that are wrong with this novel in a very large way. One is its mistaken emphasis on the form of the “cozy” mystery, and one is its membership in what I will call the “industrial” novel.
What is an “industrial” novel? It’s certainly an adjective that I use idiosyncratically. In order to understand it, you have to place it within its proper context, that of “commercial fiction”. And so I’ll define that first. Commercial fiction is probably most easily defined by its antonym, literary fiction. If it isn’t literary, it’s commercial. I suggest that literary fiction is most often written for artistic reasons and commercial fiction is most often written to make money. You know the difference, right? Literary fiction wants to win the Nobel Prize for literature, and commercial fiction wants to sell a million copies of itself.
Commercial fiction embraces a large range of genres: mystery, romance, western, science fiction, etc. (So does literary fiction but genre-based literary fiction is quite rare.) Some writers of commercial fiction are trying to approach the standards of literary fiction; most are just trying to make a buck. I should add here that I have no problem whatsoever with commercial fiction; in fact, I find literary fiction quite tiresome. I do not disrespect commercial fiction because it is written to make money; usually, books in this category have a strong focus on entertaining the reader, and I am a reader who likes to be entertained.
I use the term “industrial fiction” to describe a subset of commercial fiction; again, it’s hard to define, but what I’m talking about here is fiction that is not constructed with the pleasure of the reader foremost in mind. In fact, I think of industrial fiction as novels that are written to fulfill a contract. Or, as Truman Capote said in a different context (referring to Jack Kerouac), “That isn’t writing. That’s typing.” Monty Python’s Flying Circus once released a record (in 1980, so pre-CD) called “Contractual Obligation Album” and I think that title encapsulates what is happening here. I’m also reminded of the Jack Nicholson character in the film version of The Shining, typing “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” over and over and over. Had he collated those pages and submitted them to his publisher to fulfill a contract, that’s what I mean by industrial fiction. And the day that robots or computers or artificial intelligences begin to publish their own works, that will truly define industrial fiction.
As to why this particular novel seems to me to be industrial fiction; this is a slight, slight book that has been padded into 80,000 words. The actual material of the plot in and of itself takes very little space; the criminal events are few and far between. The rest of the book consists of bumph, which to me means padding; material about the personal life of the protagonist that has little or nothing to do with the events of the novel.
For instance, I opened my copy of the novel at random and found (page 53) a large paragraph detailing the physical layout of the Lawrenceton Public Library along with a note to buy pregnancy vitamins for her pregnant bodyguard and some anguish about how the woman could be pregnant because her husband had had a vasectomy. Page 130, immediately after Roe discovers the concussed body of her male bodyguard on her lawn, has a paragraph detailing what Roe needs to do about, among other things, picking up the man’s paycheque at the factory. Pages 164-165 are completely devoted to Roe’s mental monologue as she leaves the house for the beauty parlour to get ready for a dinner party (which party also has nothing to do with the plot except for the murderer’s presence).
Now, the fact that this bumph has nothing to do with the plot is not automatically a bad thing, of course. This could be termed characterization; we learn more about Roe than this reader, at least, actually wanted to. The fact that there is such an enormous amount of bumph that one has to wade through in order to get to anything meaningful could also be described in the context of detective fiction as obfuscation; hiding tiny clues in a long laundry list of stuff is a tradition that dates back at least to E. C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case. So, for me to call this industrial fiction is more a personal reaction that is saying, “I don’t like this kind of fiction and think its primary reason for existence is monetary,” whereas I’d be ready to praise similar novels for similar reasons. I acknowledge that. I disliked this novel and I’m prepared to admit that that colours my interpretation of the motives which produced it.
Where I am on more secure ground, though, is with the nature of this bumph. And here, I’m going to quote myself from elsewhere in this blog (specifically, the entry for #002 in this series). “One key element of good mysteries is that there is generally a sub-theme that relates to the larger theme, but in a subtle way that is not obvious from the beginning. For instance, to create something from whole cloth, if the main plot theme is the murder of a plagiarist at a university, and there is what appears to be an unconnected theme about the failure of a restaurant business wherein we meet many of the suspects, in some way the theme of plagiarism must relate to the failure of the restaurant by the end of the novel. Perhaps the restaurant is failing because someone has stolen the recipes from another chef but failed to get the details correct. That’s how the mystery should work.”
The plot here is based on the idea that Roe has a secret admirer who commits crimes against people whom he believes to have disrespected her. The theme — hard to say. Perhaps it’s that unrequited love should not be concealed, or that crazy people do crazy things in the name of love, or … well, I can’t say. It’s certainly not obvious. And one of the reasons it is not obvious is because there is literally nothing in the novel that illustrates it.
There is a sub-plot in this book wherein a married couple learn that the wife is pregnant although the husband has had a vasectomy. I was immediately looking for connections here and found nothing. Similarly, there’s quite a bit of material about the relationship between Roe and her husband, all of it irrelevant. There is no instance of unrequited love anywhere else in the book; we know absolutely nothing about why the murderer has fixed his attentions upon Roe. There is nothing in the book that could be described as a reversal, or a twist, on the idea of unrequited love — barring a brief moment when one of Roe’s discarded boyfriends announces that he wants her back. But this goes nowhere.
In fact, one of the reasons that I chose this particular novel to pillory in this series is because I was extremely amused by the idea that the author has indeed revealed the real theme of this book; “Things drop out of thin air and land in front of you and cause you problems”. Can’t you just see Ms. Harris thinking, “Oh, I know, I’ll have the dead body drop out of an airplane in Chapter 1! That’s exciting! That’s going to really hook the reader and get her interested.” It might do so, but for someone who is actually reading this book looking for structure, it tends to send entirely the wrong message. There is just no reason for anything to happen in this book. It’s more like Harris made up what she feels to be an interesting character — Roe, who has lots of money, gets lots of sex, has a handsome husband, loving family, and devoted retainers, a career, and a cat — and then had to think of something for her to do that would qualify as a mystery without, you know, actually AFFECTING her. I think of this as the worst kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy. I am told by textbooks on writing that the cardinal sin is to be too kind to one’s protagonist, and that this is the sign of a novice writer who is destined to remain unsold. And that’s why I suggest that this is industrial fiction, because there is no other reason for this to exist save that two parties signed a contract agreeing to publish what showed up as long as it had Aurora Teagarden in it.
Which brings me, at long last, to the second part of my complaint; the mistaken emphasis upon the “cozy” form. It is certainly true that I dislike cozies as a sub-genre of the mystery; I don’t think that murder should be a bloodless game, by and large, and there ought to be a certain amount of societal outrage inherent in the killing of one person by another. But mostly why I object to cozies is that, 95% of the time, they are written by people who either don’t understand how commercial fiction works or are incapable of producing it skilfully.
A defender of the work of Ms. Harris, and I imagine there are quite a few of them (whom I will discourage from sending me angry screeds about my insolence in daring to suggest that someone who sells as many books as Ms. Harris can possibly be incompetent; save your breath to cool your porridge, ladies, that argument won’t fly with me) will say, “Well, you know, I don’t read these for the murders. In fact I don’t usually care whodunit. I like to read about Aurora Teagarden and her everyday life and what it’s like to live in small-town Georgia. So POOH to you and your insistence that mysteries should be written to your stupid high standards, I like these and I’ll continue to read them.” Go for it; if you wish to embrace mediocrity, I have no wish to stop you and will take great pleasure in selling you rare copies at inflated prices of the rubbish you apparently cherish.
The problem with this particular book is that about 75% of its contents have nothing to do with murder or the plot. Do you wish to call the padding and bumph about Roe’s personal life “characterization”? I will only ask you to note that Roe Teagarden is not someone who exists in the real world. In fact, this character is not likely to exist anywhere because she seems to be a wish-fulfillment fantasy for Charlaine Harris about what she would like her personal life to be like. Roe Teagarden is a cardboard cutout whom Harris shuffles through events taking great care to preserve her from any lasting impacts. The cutout is incredibly detailed, right down to the colour of the frames of her eyeglasses, but cardboard nevertheless.
“But, but, but,” sputter the fans. “Harris actually kills off the husband in a later book.” Yes, and that’s an example of another big and similar problem that is only really easy to see when you look at Harris’s work as a whole. I can give you an example from the work of someone who is a much better writer; Agatha Christie. Her mystery-writing character, Ariadne Oliver, is constantly bemoaning the fact that she has made her detective, Sven Hjerson, a vegetarian Finn. I’ve forgotten the reference, but at one point Mrs. Oliver bemoans the fact that she is constantly getting letters from people who say, rightly, that a REAL Finn wouldn’t say/do such-and-such, and that a REAL vegetarian wouldn’t say/do such-and-such. That’s because Christie wishes us to believe that Mrs. Oliver (like her own experience with Hercule Poirot) makes up bits of the character to simply generate some interest in the reader and is then buried by their accumulated weight in later volumes. And that’s what happens here; and she gets out from under the accumulated weight by killing the husband and starting fresh.
In Charlaine Harris’s work, this is most easily seen by looking at the 13 volumes of the Southern Vampire series. Here’s how it works. In a novel, Harris has a plot problem, usually that there is not enough of the primary plot structure upon which to usefully or productively focus. So she introduces a subsidiary character or two, and introduces a sub-plot, that enables her to deliver a complete book. I’m thinking here of the character of Alcide Herveaux, a handsome werewolf who first appeared in book 3, Club Dead. To me, it’s easy to see that she introduced werewolves in an off-hand way because she wanted a supernatural romantic involvement for Sookie as a sub-plot in a book where Bill Compton was off-stage. Then she had to give Alcide a girlfriend and tie her into the plot, so that Sookie wouldn’t have to deal with three romantic interests instead of merely two.
But in the nature of such things, the reader becomes invested in secondary characters who recur from book to book and wants to see them in every book. And since Harris uses this trick in nearly every book to add some oomph to a sagging plot — by the time the 13th volume rolls around, there is almost no room for plot, because we have an obligatory interaction with every single minor character who has ever stepped onto the stage, even if it’s only a “hihowarya” phone call or a brief musing about whatever happened to …
And it’s the same in this series, although somewhat less because the series was shorter. The first few volumes use the trick of having Roe in an unsatisfactory romantic relationship and aware that she is interested in someone else. Then there’s a volume where she meets a man and is powerfully attracted to him, and marries him. But this means that the plots cannot contain new potential boyfriends — so Harris kills off the husband. As I recall dimly, she then stupidly repeats the process of boyfriend/boyfriend/husband and, had the series not ended, Roe would have been well on her way to a third husband. Anyway, at this point in the series we have to deal with many characters and incidents from Roe’s previous adventures, and the leftover attitudes of those characters towards her, and bringing those characters up to date with a snippet of information about how they’ve changed lately, or not changed lately, plus Roe’s favourite stores, jewelry, habits, attitudes, moralizing … it’s as though the character is wearing a “fat suit” made up of old material that she has to drag with her wherever she goes. And listening to it all is like sitting on an airplane trapped next to someone who wants to tell you the story of her life and her opinion on everything under the sun, and you sat next to her the last four flights.
The point of this is that because the “characterization” doesn’t arise organically from the characters interacting with sensible plots, and is merely meretricious and/or wish-fulfillment fantasy for the writer, it’s leaden and it weighs down the character. And it weighs down all future novels in the series, and accretes more such bumph because Harris, having discovered a trick that works, makes use of it again and again. This is, to me, why Harris is now working on her fourth series character; she doesn’t have the knack of creating a plot and characters that illustrate a theme, so she pads the novels with bumph and then has to deal with the consequences, and soon she has to abandon these characters who have become too laden with bumph to move in any direction. It’s the literary equivalent of an episode of “Hoarders”. If Roe was the type of person who would organically accumulate, say, old lovers and people who wanted to possess her for their own, this particular novel would make some sense. As it stands, it’s just the fantasy of an author who probably wishes someone would admit to having unrequited love for her AND it’s really obvious that she hasn’t the faintest idea how this might work in real life. The character in the novel is unremarkable in the extreme and has no psychological realism. If he’s fixated on Roe to the point of killing for her, would he casually introduce her to his date at a dance? Doesn’t ring true, and nothing about this character, plot or book does ring true.
I should add that I have no wish to see Charlaine Harris in the poorhouse, as it were. She’s quite entitled to write this nonsense in whatever quantity she wishes, and sell it to the credulous people who require nothing more than what one amateur reviewer charmingly called a “brain dump”. If you love her work because it doesn’t challenge you, I have no doubt there will be plenty more of the same. But you will not be able to change my mind about the true merits of her work, so don’t bother trying; your comments will be deleted and I will be much more amused than taken to task by them.
One final parenthetical note: the acknowledgement cites “the fact that Joan Hess gave me exactly one suggestion for this book when I was in a bind”. Since that is one more idea than I have ever found in the collected works of Joan Hess, I find that difficult to believe, but having swallowed the camel that is Aurora Teagarden, why should I strain at this gnat? I expect that some work of “housewife mystery soft-core porn” that is the specialty of Ms. Hess shall form the basis for a future work in this series, if I can ever bring myself to finish and then re-read one.
Notes For the Collector:
Abebooks.com has a signed copy of the uncorrected proofs for the first edition at $50 plus shipping, similarly a signed first for $25 and a signed paperback for $10. It’s odd that most of the books I look at under the Die Before You Read heading are essentially worthless; this is not likely to be so for Charlaine Harris ever again. Because of True Blood, Harris’s entire oeuvre has become somewhat collectible. Still, this really is a poor book in a poor series; purchase with care.