Monday, March 22, 2010

Dissection: Murder, Mayhem & a Fine Man

Hello, my lovely, lovely readers!

Today, we're kicking off what I hope will become a vital part of Word Wanderings, and that's our book dissection segment! Nothing will help one learn the craft of writing better than taking a book, splaying its pages open, and peering behind the words into what makes the book work. Now remember: what is to follow are my opinions (and trust me, with a name like Liberty, I do have quite a few of them!) Feel free to chime in and dissent as you feel the need--I openly welcome it as long as you don't get too snarky. I'm going to try not to do too many plot spoilers, and will put in red letters anything I feel may be a plot spoiler so if you haven't read the book, you can skip it.

I've chosen for our first dissection Murder, Mayhem & a Fine Man by Claudia Mair Burney. This book is published by Howard Books (a division of Simon & Schuster) and falls into the CBA arena. Admittedly, I read very, very few CBA-published books, typically non-fiction. So, this was a change for me. In the past 10 years, I've only picked up one other mystery author who publishes in the CBA realm, and that's Brandilyn Collins. (As a teen, I was a huge fan of Patricia H. Rushford, but haven't kept up with her career since I hit college.)

My overall impressions of this book were good. The main character is Amanda Bell Brown (named after the author's great-grandmother) and since one of my MC's also shares the name Amanda, I instantly liked her. One thing that was different, for me, was the fact that the MC is black. Not that I have racial preferences when I read, but the only other black MC I can recall reading about in recent history is Alex Cross by James Paterson. I did enjoy the diversity of the cast of characters. Amanda's former boyfriend/pastor is white. The man she's interested in dating (Jazz Brown--no relation) is half-white/half-black. Quite frankly, this is refreshing to me--there's not a token whatever in the book. And, it looks more like America in the cast (not sure how it reflects Detroit, where the book is set--I've never been there.)

Now, let's dig a little deeper.

Where characterization is concerned, I see a lot of good things and a few bad things. All of the characters are well defined, and seem to have their own roles. Amanda's former-boyfriend/pastor, Rocky, is a sweet puppy-like guy who's still in love with her. I really like his character, even though it seems a little superficial--he does seem to be used as a plot device to a degree, even though his role is vital, especially when it comes to the new man in Amanda's life--Jazz Brown.

Jazz is a police lieutenant who is at the scene of a double-homicide that Amanda's pathologist sister, Carly, gets called to on Amanda's 35th birthday (and since Amanda and Carly are together, Amanda gets to go along for the ride.) Jazz is attractive and immediately drawn to Amanda--always a good thing in the romance department. He's got his own demons, mostly stemming from his ex-wife who ran off on him, and is uncertain about having another romantic relationship. (I might mention that Jazz is Catholic, and some Catholics I know have major issues with the whole divorce/remarriage issue--not all, mind you, but some for sure.)

Amanda herself is a complex woman who is a forensic psychologist, but has her share of demons in her past that she hasn't completely dealt with (seems a tad ironic, but okay.) Having a cousin in my own life who's getting her psych master's degree right now, I know a big part of being a psychologist, at least from what my cousin's told me, means dealing with things from your own past--things that could make you vulnerable or blind to those you're treating. (At one point, Jazz does question how she got her degree without dealing with these issues--score one for Jazz!) And seeing as a healthy chunk of those Amanda deals with come from cult settings, and she's a survivor from one who hasn't dealt with the resulting issues that came from that, I find some of what she does or how she handles things a little... odd. (Amanda is one of those character's I'd love to see Jeannie Campbell of The Character Therapist analyze.)

One of the other issues in the book that really kicks the Jazz/Amanda romance into high gear is the fact Amanda's struggling with endometriosis--and desperately wants to have a baby. In fact, she agrees to work with Jazz as a consultant on the double-homicide after he offers her five grand as a consulting fee--the exact amount she'd need to be able to have in-vitro fertilization performed (a fact which Carly, her sister, told Jazz.) What I did find a little hinky about this situation was how quickly after meeting that Amanda told Jazz about her condition. While I'm not the world's most private woman out there, and, admittedly, I've not been faced with the situation of having a biological clock ticking combined with a serious condition that affects reproduction, I'd think telling a potential love interest within hours of meeting them that you're desperate to have a baby would be a major turn-off. Jazz doesn't hardly blink when she tells him, though. Even before I started thinking about using this book in an dissection setting, I did a double-take.

A couple last thoughts on characterization, then I'll move on to the mystery and a couple final thoughts. Amanda has several flashbacks--back to times when she was heavy into the cult thing. While these in and of themselves are good, even beneficial to the back story and feeds into what happens towards the end, the first one or two were extremely jarring to me. Part of that was content--even as a typical ABA reader, I was caught off-guard by the graphic nature of the scenes. But, I think what really got to me was the fact that they started occurring so deep into the book. (The book is 291 pages, and the first flashback started on page 94, so right about 1/3 of the way into the book.) While I'm not going to dictate how a published author is to write their books, and I'm certainly not going to argue with an agent or publisher (at least, not unless they were my own!), my own personal feelings where flashbacks are concerned is to start them early enough in the book so they don't accost your reader. Ideally, I'd prefer to see this in the first 50 pages, depending on the total length of your novel. Definitely in the first 1/4. Though, there are times when this is nigh impossible. I do think that it was possible to move the first flashback a little earlier in the book, however.

Okay, mystery time!

This is one of those mysteries that is, to me, a little light on mystery and rather heavy on the romance/characters, so this will actually be brief compared to the novel I wrote above. I guess if I wanted almost straight mystery, I'd pick up a Spenser novel by Robert B. Parker. However, I do love my character driven mysteries. (Yes, I'm digressing. Moving on!)

This mystery centered around a double-homicide. The vics are two males, presumably killed by strychnine poisoning, and, it later is discovered, were members of a cult. One of the vics' father's owns the house they were murdered in. All of this, minus the definite cult part, is about all you learn about the victims in the first 1/2 of the book. I'm  exaggerating some, but it seems that the first half of the book is really all characters, characters, characters, then the second half is more, 'oh, yeah, I've got a mystery to solve here'. To me, a definite bad point. (One side-note: I found that I laughed really hard through the first half of the book, then about that half-way point, there was a definite shift, and while there were still a lot of laughs, things got a lot more serious.) Late-edition addition: Though, upon a re-read just prior to publication, I did actually see a lot of subtle clues in the first half feeding into the ultimate solution. They are there, it's just still heavy on characterization.

One good thing was that the ultimate bad guy was introduced by name before the 1/3 point. One bad thing was that other than one statement from Jazz that Amanda was a suspect because she'd been to the house before and recognized one of the vics, there were no other discernible suspects brought on scene prior to this point or for a few chapters after. Something I've learned in my various readings is that you should bring several suspects into the book as early as possible and begin giving them reasons behind killing the victim(s). But, the killer definitely should be onstage sometime before the 1/3 point, so at least here, Ms. Burney did follow the "rules". Also, the mystery gets dropped in your lap within the first few pages. Some books wait chapters to get to the body, but not this one. Since so much of the next 10 chapters or so are focused on the characters, this is good for the mystery lover--you know those victims are there and there's a mystery to solve!

My final thoughts

I've been actively working on a critique of a friend's book and an edit of my own book as I read Murder, Mayhem & a Fine Man. I found several things in the book that made me think differently about my own project. First, the inner dialogue for Amanda was phenomenal. In fact, at times, it was over-the-top. But, because this has been an area several people have pointed out to me as a potential weak area with my own Amanda, I was sitting up and taking note. After reading this book, I honestly feel that my own Amanda will finally start showing herself some more as I finish up the edits to my project and get it ready to make the rounds with some carefully selected agents.

As a rare CBA reader, I was jarred by how much Biblical teaching went into this book. I didn't disagree with what was said (at least nothing comes to mind) but I was honestly surprised at how much teaching was in the novel and how many Scriptures were mentioned, repeated, etc. Since I've been working on another project that will go more towards the CBA market, this opened my eyes and made me see the potential I have to grow in that book.

If you haven't read Murder, Mayhem & a Fine Man you can purchase it at for $11.10.

Well, if you've stuck with me this far, thank you! I know this has been a rather lengthy post today, but I hope you've found it beneficial. If you've read the book, please feel free to chime in below. I really love to read your comments, and will respond as I can.

Until next time,


K.M. Weiland said...

Good job, Liberty! Haven't read the book, but I agree that gimmicks like flashbacks need to be established early on if they're going to play a prominent and continuing role in the story.

Liberty Speidel said...

Thanks, Katie! I started re-reading the book last week (just to make sure I didn't miss anything) and still, the flashbacks were jarring, even though I was expecting them this time.

I am going to read the second book in the series--I'm curious where Ms. Burney takes the relationship between Amanda and Jazz. :) And how Amanda is further developed and deals with her demons.

Nina Hansen said...

Great idea and great post, Liberty! I would love to read more dissections!

Liberty Speidel said...

Thanks, Nina! I'm going to take a break over the summer, but hope to be back with them in the fall. I've got two more I'm planning; the next is tentatively 'Virgin of Small Plains' by Nancy Pickard.

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