Jill was very surprised that I read this book. She has read some of Charlaine Harris’ other books as part of her general vampire fascination and doesn’t think very highly of them. But there’s something that you have to understand: this book is about both Arkansas and martial arts. And the thing is, the two weirdest places I’ve ever spent serious time are the state of Arkansas and the martial arts school in southern California where I studied Tae Kwon Do for three years in the mid-2000’s – so the idea of a book that combines both of these entities is entirely irresistible to me. I didn’t have high expectations for this book’s literary quality, and, to be honest, it wasn’t as badly written as I expected. It also, however, wasn’t as weird as I expected, which is disappointing.
This novel is the first of a series of five murder mysteries that are set in the fictional town of Shakespeare, Arkansas. If you don’t know Arkansas, you might think this is a rather incongruous name for a small southern town, but, once the idea was introduced to me I was actually a little surprised that there isn’t really a town by that name in that state. I feel as if I’ve been there – taught in its elementary school and eaten in its Sonic and pumped gas at its BP Station and watched crazy TV at its local motel. The protagonist of this novel is Lily Bard, a transplant to Shakespeare from Memphis. Lily is a housekeeper by trade, a student of karate, and the survivor of a vicious kidnapping and rape that has shaped who she is and how she has organized her life. A chronic insomniac, she is out for a late-night walk one night when she sees someone dumping a body in an arboretum near her home.
Yes, you heard me correctly – this small Arkansas town has an ARBORETUM. And nowhere in the novel is there any mention of a Sonic. So much for verisimilitude.
Lily investigates the situation and finds that the body belongs to the landlord of a nearby apartment complex. She knows the complex well because she is a client of almost all of its residents. (Yes, this is a small town in which the residents of little one-bedroom apartments routinely hire housekeepers. My eyebrows are raised too.) She places an anonymous call to the police chief, himself a resident of the apartment complex, but becomes very spooked because she realizes that her fingerprints will be found around the body. At first, she tries to maintain her usual routine, cleaning houses as usual the next day and attending her karate class at night. Soon, though, Lily is drawn in both by the investigation of the murder and by a series of strange incidents surrounding both herself and a woman named Thea Sedaka, who is the wife of Lily’s karate teacher, Marshall (as in martial arts – get it? Nice touch.). Someone begins leaving anonymous and sinister gifts for Lily and Thea to find. In Lily’s case, these gifts – a set of handcuffs, a Ken doll with his eyes gouged out – always seem to relate to the horrific kidnapping and rape that she survived, indicating that someone in town has found out about this aspect of Lily’s past, which she has always resolutely kept secret.
Oh, and Thea Sedaka? Yeah, she apparently is a practitioner of hard-core S&M – S&M that is so hard-core that her black-belt karate instructor husband is horribly afraid of her and is in the process of divorcing her to escape her abuse: a detail that is casually mentioned in passing in the first half of the novel and then never brought up again. What??? you ask. I know!
I actually really like the idea of a housekeeper as the heroine of a series of mystery novels. She has access to the homes of many of the residents of her town, and she can easily make assumptions about their lives and habits based on the patterns she sees in their homes – and the details of our homes, of course, are both extremely telling and also extremely easy to misinterpret – and this tension makes for an effective plot device in this novel. Lily’s experience as a rape victim makes her suspicious of others and obsessed with security and self-defense – perfectly plausibly – but the horribly over-the-top sadism of the attack she endured is excessive, in my opinion. I would have toned it down a bit if I were writing this novel.
Overall, I think this novel is generally successful as a character study of Lily but less successful as a murder mystery. I am not a habitual reader of mysteries, but I’ve read enough of them to know how they usually work. A typical mystery introduces the reader to a wide variety of suspects and clues, and as the plot progresses there are usually times when it should seem obvious that Person A committed the murder, and then it should seem obvious that Person B committed the murder, but only until the focus shifts to Person C, and so forth. The novel’s resolution has to identify the true killer, of course, which is usually either someone the reader never suspected or an original suspect (Person A or B, for example) that the reader and the hero have by that point exonerated. The ending should point to a series of clues that the reader and the hero should have noticed from the beginning, but didn’t. This is why mystery novels are effective, I think: they draw our attention to the human tendency to stare directly at our familiar world and notice everything about it except what we are looking for.
But the thing is, this novel doesn’t really do that. Lily solves the murder, of course, and the killer is someone that neither Lily nor I as a reader suspected. The problem, though, is that in my opinion the trail of clues that should have made the identity of the murderer seem obvious isn’t present. A good murder mystery is supposed to leave the reader reassured that the world does in fact make sense if only we are clever enough to put the puzzle pieces together in the right way. This novel, on the other hand, leaves the reader feeling that the world is just as scary and random and incomprehensible as it seemed when Lily first saw the murderer dragging the body into the arboretum. This could be something that Harris is doing on purpose, but I don’t know. Is she shrewd enough for that? In every other way, this feels like a very ordinary, run-of-the-mill mystery novel, and Harris doesn’t strike me as the type who would construct a plot that is postmodern and “meta.” But maybe that’s just me jumping to conclusions.
Of course this novel has no literary merit. Of course it’s kind of silly. I read it specifically because I was looking for something silly, and I was actually pleasantly surprised at how well-crafted Lily’s character is. I found the plot strangely put together, but this didn’t bother me inordinately or anything. Harris has written four more novels about Lily Bard (whose name is only one letter off from Edith Wharton’s famous Lily Bart, and I really did hope that Harris was going to do something allusive with that, but she didn’t), and I may read one or more of these at some time in the future. But they certainly won’t be high on my priority list.