My eight post in the Out of My Comfort Zone series! If you hadn’t heard about this before, it’s a series of posts in which I talk about my experiences with books/stories/formats I wouldn’t have tried otherwise.
My last post was about experiencing a story in three different formats; this time, I’m going to talk about my experience with adult mysteries.
My History With This Genre…
…is completely nonexistent. I always start my Out of My Comfort Zone posts talking about history, but this time I can’t, because I had never read an adult mystery set in the real world before. Fantasy mysteries? Sure! The Perfect Assassin, for example, was one, even though not really good in the mystery aspect; same for one of my favorite books of last year, Witchmark by C.L. Polk. But no contemporary/realistic mysteries.
Maybe my own complete lack of interest leading up to this post should have rang a bell and made me understand that the fact that this genre didn’t sound appealing to me at all until I got the idea to read it for a blog post could mean something. Maybe that could have deterred me from trying.
Alas, it did not.
I read two books:
- If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio, a contemporary/historical mystery set at an elite arts college and following a group of obnoxious theater students; I chose this one because it’s hyped, got many good reviews from people who have tastes not too different from mine most of the time, and because I’ve been told it’s m/m and why not read about gays across genres.
- After the Eclipse by Fran Dorricott, a contemporary mystery/thriller story about child abduction in an English small town. I chose this one because it has been getting wonderful reviews from friends and people I follow, and because it has a main f/f romance (of course, it’s not the focus), which does seem particularly uncommon in this genre. Also, it’s more of an “under the radar” book, which means I didn’t go into it with they weight of hype or high expectations.
And now, to what I thought of them.
If We Were Villains
The main thing I have to say is that If We Were Villains kind of is to books what cardboard is to food, and I failed to see the appeal of it on every single level.
I should have DNFed it when I realized – and that happened pretty quickly – that I hated every single character, but I didn’t: you’re not meant to like them, and I wanted to know where the book would go with such a deliberately unlikable cast.
But the problem is, they’re not even unlikable in an interesting way. There are characters I don’t like but am fascinated by, and there are characters I just want to disappear from the page. Here, everyone fell into category two, and I should have listened to my DNF instinct; after all, there’s a difference between my first reaction to a group of characters being “this is awful and messed up, I’m into it” and it being “everyone in this book would greatly benefit from a year or two spent hoeing the earth“. More than messed up – which they were, sure – they were blandly annoying.
Yes, bland. I really didn’t expect that from a book with a skull on the cover and a cast of over-the-top pretentious assholes. Did the main character even have a personality? Did James? What sense does it make to write a character-driven book in which the characters (intentionally?) have only two character traits, one of which is “pretentious”, so that we get “pretentious and promiscuous”, “pretentious and prideful”, “pretentious and frail”, or “pretentious and intoxicated”? This isn’t a play, this is a novel, the characters should have some depth.
And for a book in which a lot of the plot hinges on the main character’s loyalty to [redacted], the book sure managed to not make me feel anything about it. There was a lot of telling, but when it came to actually showing these relationships, the dynamics of this dysfunctional friend group… they felt so empty. I didn’t believe them, and the amount of backstory the characters shared that it’s implied but we’re not even really told about didn’t help either.
While reading this, I kept thinking that there was no way the characters were intentionally that flat, so I can’t help but wonder if this book is meant to be something meta about Shakespeare’s characters or plays. But since I know pretty much nothing about Shakespeare, this didn’t do anything for me, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that were the case for many who didn’t grow up immersed in the Anglosphere.
And no, if you don’t have the average Shakespeare knowledge an English speaker is expected to have, I really don’t think this book is worth it. It’s flavorless, and as a mystery, it was obvious enough that I predicted the ending step by step before the murder even happened.
(There were also many smaller things that were in bad taste, like using an eating disorder as a plot device to annoy the main character, but at that point I barely had the energy to care.)
My rating: ★★
After the Eclipse by Fran Dorricott
This was suspenseful and incredibly compelling, for something in which I guessed who the culprit was the moment he appeared on the page. While the book constantly tries to mislead the reader, the combination of heavy-handed foreshadowing and stereotypical characterization of every single side character didn’t leave much space for the reader to imagine other outcomes. I never suspected anyone else.
Unlike the previous book, this story did keep my attention; like the previous book, it disregarded the idea of complex, realistic characterization to pin every single character in a predictable role. Even the main character isn’t much more than the classic figure of the mystery-solving figure with alcohol problems and a past unresolved tragedy which ends up being tied to the present one; at least, unlike most characters that belong to this archetype, she is a lesbian and ends up in therapy.
I also think that if you’re going to write a multi-PoV novel and the book is not only perfectly understandable but also deeply predictable if the reader outright skips one of the two PoVs, there’s a problem. This is a story about child abduction and child sexual abuse. When I understood that there would be many chapters in the point of view of an abducted child, the choice for me was either skip all of them or DNF the book – I chose to skip/heavily skim, and I didn’t feel like I missed any relevant information. I can see reasoning both for including that kind of content and not doing that, so it’s more complicated than “just don’t include this kind of thing”, but the way it was done here… I’m not sure it was the best choice.
Overall, my impression of this was that it was deeply average. It’s a story about a struggling journalist in a small town with a quirk that has to catch the town’s predator before he strikes again, and while it isn’t a bad novel, it doesn’t do anything unexpected. I’m already forgetting most of the details and it’s only been a few hours.
My rating: ★★½
Will I Read Another Adult Mystery?
I’m always hesitant to judge an entire genre from only two books, but at the moment, I don’t plan to. This genre never appealed to me, and considering that I picked up the books that I thought were more likely to work for me – they’re queer, they got many good reviews, they had an interesting premise – that’s not likely to change anytime soon.
I feel like mysteries – and this is also true for the YA mysteries that don’t get too distracted with the romance – often expect the suspense to carry the reader through the story instead of crafting compelling characters and relationship dynamics. And I mean, on a level it works: I didn’t DNF either of these books, and they didn’t take me that long to read. However, that also means that I start forgetting them the moment I finish them and end up feeling like I wasted my time.
I don’t want to write off an entire genre, of course. I want to be able to find books that work for me, I’m just not really sure where to look for them, and I’m not sure which kinds of adult mysteries/thrillers would be more likely to make it. I don’t know. I want something that will actually give me characters who feel like people and that I won’t start hating from the moment I start reading (…as I said, unlikable is great as long as it doesn’t start to make me question why should I ever want to spend time in that character’s head; I realize this is a harder balance to strike in contemporary) instead of throwing half-baked plot twists at me.
What do you think of this genre/books?