Oct 26: Complaints (1/?)

One of the nice things about having your own newsletter where you get to say whatever you want is that you can choose to just go on and on about something that bugs you.

So I would like to complain about Thrillers. I love Mysteries but I don't get through all that many Thrillers even though they are overlapping genres. Thrillers have to be heavy on the action, not like fights or violence action, but new things happening and danger potentially being around the corner action. The Classic Thriller often involves a serial killer or a big conspiracy, just the highest stakes. And that, honestly, is why I don't like them very much. I am happy to read a book in a not-exactly-real world but you have to make it clear to me that that's where we are. If it's supposed to be the regular world then, well, you have kind of lost me already. Because we don't have serial killers like the ones in novels and movies, there are no elaborate schemes and impossible-to-pull-off antics. So I end up constantly fighting between my own brain and the book.

I need to feel like the world in a book makes sense. This isn't just true of Thrillers. It's also true of a literary novel set in New York where somehow our protagonist makes minimum wage in a dead end job but also has their own apartment and never worries about bills. I have a hard time with real world conspiracy theories because I'm sorry but you cannot find enough people who are that competent to pull off the boring stuff, not to mention some grand conspiracy. Most serial killers are able to kill more than one person because they prey on the most marginalized, not the high profile people in a Thriller. I don't like spending so much time thinking, "This makes no sense," while I'm reading.

The other thing a lot of Thrillers use is a Protagonist Who Makes Bad Decisions. This is a very tricky thing to do well. Lots of people make bad decisions, especially when they're under stress. I am here for a story where our protagonist keeps making the wrong choice but we understand the reasons. But many Thrillers will give you a protagonist who should know better, and will not give us a very good reason for why they continue to make bad decisions. Because there is no reason except that it is required to make the plot work. This is the best way to make me mad at your book.

Basically the gauge of how much I enjoy a Thriller is how many times did I have to yell at the protagonist in it. (I do not always yell, unless it is an audiobook and then I definitely do.) If I am yelling every chapter, we have a problem.

If you are a Thriller reader, you should keep this in mind when you read what I have to say about them. I know that Thriller readers don't have this issue (or at least not to this extent) or else they wouldn't be Thriller readers. And I am honestly jealous because I would enjoy them so much more if I could have just the smallest modicum of chill. But this is my curse.

As a side note, none of the books below fall into this category of Thrillers That Super Annoy Me. They are all books where there will occasionally be a point where I say "Oh no you shouldn't do that" but it is not yelling at the book level of intensity.

New Releases

Grave Reservations
A psychic travel agent and a Seattle PD detective solve a murder in this quirky mystery in the vein of Lisa Lutz’s The Spellman Files and...

This is a quirky mystery that is Not Quite Cozy but pretty close. It has a sense of humor, but it does take the murders and our characters seriously. It's comped to The Spellman Files and yes technically they are both mysteries with humor, but TSF was dark humor that never felt very cozy to me and this one has enough Capital-Q-Quirky to lean much more in that direction.

Leda Foley, our protagonist, has just launched a floundering travel agency, but outside of work she's a mediocre psychic who doesn't really know how her powers work or how to use them. But when she has a premonition for a client's flight, and that client just happens to be a cop, she is roped in to help him with one of his murder investigations that's gone cold.

You are either going to find it perfectly your speed or not really your jam and where you fall will depend a lot on how your humor meshes with the book. It is very heavy on banter, especially between Leda and her best friend Niki, who have the well-practiced back and forth of a pair who know each other inside out. You will be able to tell pretty quickly, so if it sounds up your alley I think it's worth a shot. I tried it because I really enjoyed Priest's two horror novels and found this to be really different in basically every way, she can do a lot!

What I've Been Reading

The Verdict
Terry Flynt is a struggling legal clerk, desperately trying to get promoted. And then he is given the biggest opportunity of his career: ...

Backlist Alert! You can actually find this book and read it!
Shelves: Mystery
Stars: 3.5

Perpetual temp Terry has finally got himself a regular job as a clerk in a fancy law firm. After years of self-destructive spiraling, it's a big step, but he's quickly in over his head when a big new criminal case comes in defending a millionaire accused of murder. It looks open and shut, the woman was found in his hotel room, after all. But it's more complicated than that, especially since the millionaire is a self-made man who also happens to have been Terry's closest childhood friend who he had a terrible falling out with and hasn't spoken to in years.

Legal/Courtroom thrillers are very hard to find. Despite the massive success of folks like Grisham, there aren't that many out there. They require meticulous plotting and a good understanding of the legal system. It's very easy to go off the rails, there were a few times when I thought this book would. But ultimately it delivered. I tip my hat.

My biggest stumbling block in a lot of legal thrillers is actually knowing the legal system, so I can see every single cut corner. This is set in the UK, which helped a little, as I don't know their rules in and out. It is necessary to cut some corners because the truth is trials are very boring. Stone cut a smidge more than I found necessary (lots of argument from the questioning lawyer when examining witnesses, the most common flaw) but otherwise he was good on procedure and pacing, and his courtroom scenes are okay to pretty good. Long courtroom scenes will always feel staged because they literally are staged, but I was always interested. He's particularly good at helping the reader see the difference between all the evidence in a case vs the actual case presented to a jury.

This is set over several months and the bulk of the book is the actual investigation of the case. There's a personal angle for our protagonist Terry, who knows the accused millionaire murderer Vernon James from their childhood and has a long grudge against him. And there's the question of whether he really wants this job as a legal clerk in a fancy firm's criminal division, which he isn't quite sure how he landed. I suspect that clerks don't actually do this much investigating in the UK, that they leave the work to actual investigators, but even though I was ready to nitpick, Stone makes it all pay off. He has some call back or follow up to every little detail along the way.

It isn't perfect. Terry's family starts out getting lots of attention and then has hardly any by the end. It suffers from the problem that many "is this actually a big conspiracy" plots suffer from, in that it's all too well executed with too many coincidences to be anything anyone could have planned. But like I said, it isn't a genre where you're going to be overwhelmed with choices, and a solid contender that I haven't read already is hard to find.

Violent if not particularly gory, plus includes a lot of nonconsensual S&M violence.

The Accomplice
Everyone has the same questions about best friends Owen and Luna: What binds them together so tightly? Why weren’t they ever a couple? An...

Release Date: January 25, 2022
Shelves: Mystery
Stars: 3.5

This is one I recommend going into without reading a whole lot about the plot, so here's what I'll tell you. In college, Owen and Luna became best friends. Over the years their friendship has become more than a little codependent. A murder puts both of them under suspicion, especially when it turns out this isn't the first time it's happened.

This mostly walks a nice line between balancing character development and plot twists. It's not quite 4 stars for me because I never felt like I got all the way into Owen and Luna and their relationship, like the book kept me at a remove the same way Owen and Luna kept everyone else at a distance.

Structurally I like a lot about this. Being in a deep, codependent friendship can create a you-against-the-world feeling. And being in a male-female friendship can make everyone automatically suspicious of you. We follow Owen and Luna over 15 years or so. I liked the way this wasn't just a two-timeline story, but would jump us to all kinds of other important moments along the way when it could add a new piece of context to the narrative. I also liked how there was always more to the story than just a crime then vs a crime now. Most of all, I liked how the biggest turning points of the story were always about Luna and Owen's relationship and not just a new twist about the crime.

There is just something about this that didn't quite get me there. And I think it may just be a thing about Lutz. I am not against unlikable characters, and they're kind of her specialty. Sometimes her work can rub me the wrong way by leaning too hard into that. (Full disclosure, I actively hated her last novel, The Swallows.) And I was frustrated that by the end of the book I liked Luna and Owen a lot less than I had before, and I found their relationship to be one less about care than about habit. I don't need everything to be shiny and happy, of course. I like darkness in stories and in characters. But I don't know, there is something (a kind of bleakness? a lack of vulnerability? I'm still not sure) running through the whole thing that kept me from investing in these characters.

Generally I think most readers who enjoy dark crime fiction, especially with a double timeline, will enjoy this. I did, even if I didn't love it.

Next week I will complain about Thrillers again. I would apologize but I have dated enough to know that it's no use trying to hide your real self from someone. It's really best to just be exactly who you are all along so here it is, I like to complain about books just as much as I like to gush about them. You should understand what you subscribed to.

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