Saturday, March 26, 2011

Crime Fiction: Heads You Lose by Lisa Lutz and David Hayward

(Editor’s note: Today we welcome to January Magazine a new book critic: Roberta Alexander, an editor and mystery reviewer in the San Francisco Bay Area. A former fan of Nancy Drew, Alexander is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and can be reached through her Web site.)

Lisa Lutz broke a lot of rules in her delightful series about the engaging and dysfunctional Spellman family, which ran a detective agency in San Francisco. The stories focused on daughter Izzy’s attempt to create a life for herself under less-than-ideal conditions, while also solving various little mysteries and cases.

Not least of the books’ pleasures was that they allowed readers to comfort themselves with the knowledge that at least their families, however annoying, didn’t spy on each other the way the Spellmans did.

Lutz’s new book, Heads You Lose (Putnam), pushes the envelope in a less successful way.

The story focuses on an orphaned brother and sister, Paul and Lacey Hansen, who run a pot farm in Northern California, and who find a headless body on their property. They think they know who it is. But that man turns out to be still alive.

In fact the story here is soon forgotten, for the twist in this novel is that Lutz invited her former boyfriend, David Hayward, to write alternating chapters. So we get to watch as Lutz sets up a situation, and then Hayward selects a thread from her narrative and spins it out in a different direction. Are these red herrings or important clues? And do the authors care, or are they using this brother and sister, who have frequent disagreements and conflicting desires, as stand-ins for themselves?

Since the co-authors included their comments to one other at each chapter’s end, we get both the story and the back-story. These liner notes are far more interesting than the plot, so after a few chapters it’s hard to remember, or care about, the Hansens and their unidentified corpse.

On the other hand, readers are offered a fascinating backstage view of the writing process as they trace the different approaches of the collaborating authors, their attempts to make the wildly divergent parts of their tale coalesce and their occasional sniping at what seems like unfinished personal business. At one point, for instance, an argument between Lutz and Hayward about how much history they need to give their assorted characters morphs into a disagreement about a trip they once took together.

Whether that’s enough to make up for a meandering fictional yarn is a subject for debate. I would vote for a good story first.

But Lutz is a talented writer, and I look forward to seeing what she tries next.

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