By M. L. Longworth–Usually I’m generous in reviewing an author’s first novel, because there’s a lot to learn about how best to guide readers down a fictional path, and even a good story can stumble into the Swamp of Difficulty. (And let’s face it–I, too, want to have a first book in print some day, and it is unlikely to be without flaws, no matter how hard I try!) However, I expect a book that a publisher—in this case, Penguin—has decided to invest in to be guided out of the murky waters in which this mystery novel flounders.
My general concerns are the story’s lack of coherence and convincingly drawn, engaging characters. Their dialog seems to be conducted in American slang. Maybe French people speak that way these days. I hope not. In Fiction Writing 101, students are harangued endlessly about maintaining a consistent point of view and warned against dipping in and out of different characters’ consciousnesses, as Longworth does, often from one paragraph to the next. The result is inescapably messy and confusing.
I’ll confine examples of specific quibbles to one three-page sequence late in the book, in which the author makes three startling mistakes that leave the reader shouting for (or at) the book’s editor, if one there was. In the first, the omniscient narrator announces, “He (Auvieux) had always been frightened of Cosette.” Auvieux and Cosette are two principal characters, why are we being told this important information so late in the game, and why hasn’t it been shown throughout in Auvieux’s behavior? With appropriate signals from Auvieux, the detective would have deduced his fear by now (never mind that we don’t find out whether there is any real basis for it), so that it can be served up to the reader as the character’s insight, not a bald assertion by the narrator.
The firearm Auvieux carries is described first as a hunting rifle then as a shotgun—an amazing continuity break for an author of murder mysteries. In this same passage, Auvieux has led the detective to a remote cabin at night. Although the detective has never been there before, he says, “We will [go around and]. . . sneak up on the north side of the cabanon, since that side doesn’t have a window.” Huh? How the heck does he know that?
The author, who apparently is charming in person, has produced a number of subsequent mysteries in this series. They have the advantage of a colorful setting—the Aix-en-Provence region of France, where she lives—and her sprightly writing style, but this first one does not make me eager to read another.
On her website, Longworth admits she doesn’t read mysteries very often, and it shows. Also she takes a swipe at the genre (and here I admit to being perhaps a little thin-skinned, as my parenthetical editorializing indicates), saying, “I was too shy to begin writing [real!] fiction, so I thought that if I wrote ‘genre’ fiction [the easy stuff!] I would have some boundaries to work with. Every mystery has the same framework: someone dies, there is a murderer, and the hero/heroine looks for that killer.” Creatively and persuasively, one hopes.