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Bibliphile reviews Strangled Prose (mystery) by Joan Hess

Series detective: Claire Malloy
No. in series: 1
Year of publication: 1986
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Amateur, aided and thwarted by police
Setting & time: Arkansas, USA; mid 1980's

I recently found this review which I wrote ages ago, but then put aside as I wasn't certain I should publish, as it may seem a bit too much like a rant. I decided that I would publish it, as it illustrates something that really nags me, not only about the occasional mystery, but also about some romances. It concerns behaviour that is designed to really make me lose all sympathy for characters guilty of it.

Story: Claire Malloy, in spite of her unflattering opinions of romance novels, agrees to host the publication party of her friend Mildred's (aka Azalea Twilight) latest offering, Professor of Passion, a torrid story about amorous goings-on at a university. A militant feminist member of the faculty invades the party and reads passages from the book that draw up an unflattering image of three faculty members: Claire herself, the teacher she has been dating, and her late husband. A couple of hours later the author is found strangled to death in her house, and suspicion falls on Claire and the two teachers. Claire struggles to prove her innocence and begins an investigation, which is alternatively helped and thwarted by police lieutenant Pete Rosen, for whom she forms an almost instant dislike (romance readers will know what that means).

Review: This is Joan Hess' first novel, and in some ways it shows. The trademark enjoyable wry humour is already there, and so is the heroine with a streak of independence a mile wide and a streak of stubbornness even wider. The twists are good too, even though I saw at least two of them coming. There is also one conspicuous case of firstbookitis, which is a problem with tenses.
The narrative is in the first person, and that person is Claire. While she is clearly telling the whole story after the fact, there is a confusion of tenses when she speaks of Mildred while the woman is still alive in the narrative. It's as if Hess couldn't decide whether the victim's identity was supposed to be a secret or not, which is ridiculous because not only is it immaterial who is murdered in most mysteries as long as there is a murder, and secondly because it is revealed in the back cover blurb who got killed. Mildred alternatively was or is, which is not good and only confuses the reader. This was the first offense, which a good editor would have caught and corrected.

SPOILER for A Really Cute Corpse follows.

There is, however, a second offense that is rather more serious, but only if looked at retrospectively. I forgave Hess for Claire's attack of TSTL (see the glossary) in the fourth book in the series, A Really Cute Corpse, but now I fear I must withdraw my forgiveness. The following rant is really about that book, not this one, but I am putting it here since it was through this book that I discovered the felony and unfortunately it affected my enjoyment of this book. In fact, had the incident not happened in the final pages this would have become my second wallbanger (see glossary) of 2006. (I will spare you a review of the other one, which was so offensive I still can't believe I actually finished it before throwing it at the wall and then into the trash).

The offense is not a case of firstbookitis, which I tend to forgive whenever there is not too much of it, but merely a well-chewed cliché writers of all fiction genres have been using since the beginnings of the novel and will continue using long after I am dead. But that is no excuse for the same character to do it twice. Perhaps she even does it in the two intervening books and the following ones as well? I do know that if I find it in one more book in the series – and I have two lined up – I will stop reading the Claire Malloy books. It is one thing to blunder repeatedly into danger without meaning to (this merely makes a character look silly, but does not necessarily earn them a TSTL stamp), but is quite another to deliberately walk alone and without anyone's knowledge (that one knows about, because obviously the cavalry arrives at exactly the right moment) into danger when one suspects that one will be faced with someone who has already killed at least once and is probably desperate to keep their identity secret. A character who does this once can be excused on the basis of having misread the situation, but a series character who does not learn from her mistakes is unforgivable, and it is especially bad because she perpetrates exactly the kind of folly that makes many romance heroines look like stupid twits in need of (a man's) protection and which has drawn the disapproval of many romance readers and helped create a bad reputation for the genre. It is no less offensive in a mystery than it is in a romance.

*Damn, I should never write reviews just after I've read a book that upsets me.*

Rating: Would have got a 3+ if it had not been for already having read a later installation in the same series where the same TSTL behaviour was perpetrated by the same heroine. As it is, I feel I can only reward it 2 stars, even though I really should withdraw a star from A Really Cute Corpse instead of witholding one from this one (I will not, however, as the star reflects my enjoyment at the time of reading). Read it anyway, especially if you don't mind TSTL incidents.


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