Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Crime Fiction: Following Polly by Karen Bergreen

I know it sounds odd to call a book about a stalker “charming,” but that remains the best word to describe Following Polly (St. Martin’s Griffin), the debut mystery by lawyer-turned-comedian Karen Bergreen.

Usually stories about stalkers are too creepy for me, not the sort of thing I want on my bedside table. But this tale of Alice Teakle, a shy and rather forgettable woman who loses her dead-end job in a Manhattan booking agency, is a different kettle of fish.

Alice has never found her passion. Or, rather, she has never figured out how to achieve it.

Ever since they were both Harvard students, Alice has resented the beautiful, popular and selfish Polly Dawson. Now, after bumping into Polly again, and quite on a whim, Alice decides to follow her former classmate around New York City, hoping to perhaps get a clue about what to do with her own life.

She soon learns, though, that despite the appurtenances of success, Polly is far from being a useful role model. Indeed, not only has Polly offended people right and left, but there is plenty of evidence that she leads a double life. These discoveries do not help Alice find direction; however, they do have a fascination all their own, both for Alice and for Bergreen’s readers.

But then Polly is killed. Alice is the first person to happen upon her corpse, and immediately becomes suspect No. 1. In the aftermath it is up to Alice -- who’s unable to go home, because the police are looking for her -- to use her limited resources to clear her own name and get her life back in some semblance of order.

Not that her life holds much richness or meaning. Or even personal associations. There are basically three main characters in Alice’s life ... well, two people and an obsession:

Alice’s mother loves her, but her attention has been monopolized by her husband.

Her best friend is a lawyer who likes to drink, and has a penchant for bad relationships.

Then there’s her longtime, and unspoken, adoration for another former classmate, who is now a lawyer trying to clear his father’s name in an unrelated case.

Following Polly’s cast is not large, but its players are believable and well-constructed. Bergreen displays a nice touch in weaving the different plot strands together.

And while there is a whodunit to solve in these pages, the more interesting subtext is watching this rather wimpy woman, Alice -- normally part of the background of other people’s lives -- figure out not only how to survive, but to thrive. Maybe the resolution of the mystery is a little too tidy, but it’s so nice to see a semi-loser character like Alice re-create herself that I’m inclined to be forgiving. ◊

Roberta Alexander is an editor and mystery reviewer in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

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