Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Way Too Much of a Good Thing

When I started reviewing books in the mid-1990s, I made no distinction between hardbound and paperback crime/mystery novels.

In fact, I found the general critical consensus on ignoring paperbacks to be elitist and rather offensive. Before I was a critic, I was a reader and, like most fans, I bought paperbacks. Most of the hardbacks I read were ones I took out of the library.

So it made sense, if I was going to do anything of use to readers, to write about the books they might actually buy.

Over time, I found myself gravitating more toward hardcover works, perhaps because many books of interest are first released in that format. My choices of what to review, though, are still determined by subject matter rather than format.

Nonetheless, I find my latest deluge of paperbacks rather problematic.

Here are some quotes from their back covers, the place so many readers go for plot information before they make a purchase:

“As Garden View Cemetery’s new community relations manager, Pepper is feeling overwhelmed with planning the annual party to attract new sponsors. Luckily, some of the cemetery’s permanent residents have volunteered to give Pepper a helping hand.”

“Darcy Merriweather is Salem, Massachusetts’ newest resident Wishcrafter -- a witch who can grant wishes for others.”

“Sarah Dearly is adjusting to life as a fledging vampire, satisfying her cravings at vampire-friendly blood banks.”

“Practical psychologist Liz Cooper and occult professor Nick Garfield may make something of an odd couple, but things get even more odd when they attempt to solve a mystery while sidetracking a hex from a Santeria witch.”

“Before Kath can begin to clear [her late grandmother’s] name, she encounters a looming presence in the form of a gloomy ghost.”

“Meanwhile, Skye is convinced that her house is haunted and is afraid that her fiancé, police chief Wally Boyd, won’t move in until the ghost moves out.”

Do you see a pattern here?

These days it seems a traditional plucky heroine must dabble, to a greater or lesser degree, in the occult.

I understand that paranormal is in these days. I find myself hoping that, as with other fads, if I sit back quietly and bide my time, its day will pass.

I have no problem with the plucky amateur heroine subgenre per se: A young woman is thrust into circumstances beyond her control, and she must solve a murder. These books have sometimes offered a welcome change from the crusty old private-eye stories, in which the protagonist kept a bottle, or three, in his desk, and women were secretaries and/or sex objects.

Of course, even this subgenre has its clichés. Many of the P.I.s of yore were old, but at least as many of the plucky heroines are young.

There are other conventions in these stories as well. Even if they don’t include ghosts, vampires or whatnot, they often require the plucky heroine to move to a smaller town or city, perhaps her hometown of Nowheresville, or sometimes to the hometown of a relative, often an aunt, whose business needs help.

And an awful lot of those businesses are food-related. These women are caterers, bakers, restaurant owners or food critics. Now, I’m as hungry as the next person, but I’d sure like to see some of these women get out of the kitchen. Maybe the next plucky amateur’s aunt could have a hardware store or something ...

The other cliché set-up for so many paperback mysteries these days involves what I would call pets, though some authors see them simply as detectives under veterinary care. For example, one of my new arrivals described its plot this way: “My two cats, Rupert and Isabella, and I have better things to do than tail a reptile from Nob Hill to Fisherman’s Wharf.”

And really, I have better things to do than read about anthropomorphized animals.



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