Friday, December 18, 2009

Killing Two Birds with One Stone: First TBR Challenge Book and Mystery Book Club Discussion Book

Rinehart, Mary Roberts. The Yellow Room. New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1945.

(Yet again, I present you with a picture of an edition I did not read, because I suppose there is a picture somewhere of the edition I read, but I'll be damned if I can find it -- especially when I've been fighting a nasty virus all week and am even more extraordinarily impatient than usual. This should serve as a warning to you that I was anything but patient with this book).

Okay, so I am beginning to wonder if I shouldn't just shun all mysteries that present me with the letter "M" in some way as a clue. After all, this is the second mystery we've read this year for the Connecticut mystery book club featuring the letter "M" as a clue that had me frustrated (when I wasn't yawning), not caring in the least "whodunit," long before I was anywhere near getting an answer to that question.

And this one had such promise. Not only had my mother recommended it to me (granted, she probably hasn't read it since 1945, but still...), but I was also very happy to discover that it was set in Maine. I generally like these tales that take place in coastal Maine, tales that highlight the differences between the locals and the "summer people." Such books tend to be some of the best for exploring the American class system (those and books about Charleston, SC).

The promises were not kept, and I was bored almost from the beginning of this book, which moved more slowly than a paddle boat across Bar Harbor (and was just about as arduous to maneuver). No one could accuse this one of being a page-turner. I found myself taken back to that forgettable Ngaio Marsh we read with all the wearying investigation that led nowhere. This book should have taken me no time to read. Instead, it seemed to have some sort of "two-pages-forward-one-page-back" spell cast on it, as I read and read and read and wondered if I'd ever reach the end.

I found Carol, our heroine, who had lost her fiance to the war in Europe, and who I had hoped would be more interesting when I met her on the train from New York to Newport, RI with her disagreeable mother, to be wimpy and tiresome. She was the sort of woman you meet at a party and instantly forget. What Jerry Dane, her male counterpart, and our detective, found in her, I'll never know. I suppose she was meant to be attractive, but don't most smart men become bored with mere good looks after a while? It seemed he had to explain absolutely everything to her. Wouldn't that get kind of old?

One thing that amused me was the passage that described Carol's appearance. Litlove recently wrote a brilliant post on chick lit, and although this novel does not fall into that contemporary category, rather than Litlove's description being a parody, this one seemed like a parody of the technique authors use to give the reader a portrait of a heroine. Quite obviously, this technique is old and worn. I'd say it's about ready for the Goodwill. (Then again, maybe it's being sold at some trendy boutique for $250, and twenty-somethings everywhere are drooling over its fashionably "distressed" look and wishing they could afford it.)

There she lit a cigarette and surveyed herself in the mirror. What she saw was an attractive face, rather smudged at the moment, a pair of candid gray eyes, heavily lashed, and a wide humorous mouth which had somehow lost its gaiety. (p. 7)
(The editor in me wants to change that "which" to a "that," something that probably wouldn't bother me at all had I come away from this book waxing poetic.)

Anyway, Carol arrives at her family's summer home in Maine only to discover that there is a body in the linen closet (of all places). This discovery could have made her a more interesting character, but, unfortunately, it doesn't. It just highlights what a tiresome person she is. I think even Rinehart got a little tired of her, because she featured so prominently in the beginning of the book, and then she just sort of began to make token appearances to serve as Jerry Dane's love interest.

Thank God, about a third of the way into the book, just when I was beginning to understand why someone might be attracted to "uppers," Tim Murphy arrived on the scene. Now here was an interesting character, the guy who shows up at the deadly company Christmas party with whom I can stand in the corner, making fun of the whole event. But it was merely a brief interlude. He introduced himself and then hurried off to become a very minor character. However, it was enough to wake me up and keep me going -- waiting for his return.

I guess in order to liven things up a bit, Rinehart decided we needed a red herring or two. Unfortunately, a whole flock of them emerged. We managed to indict almost every member of this Maine summer colony before all was said and done. Another thing I don't like is when mysteries have that many people involved, but not really involved. Why make more than one character suffer superficial gunshot wounds merely to lead the reader off the track?

Finally, finally, finally we reached the end. We discovered Whodunit, and how did I feel? Annoyed! Okay, if you really want to know: pissed! I had pegged an idea early on, which proved to be half right, but the whole truth was way too neat and paved the way for a shamelessly contrived ending. All right, I admit, I'm picky. Give me an ending that leaves me on the gallows, and I'm not happy. Then again, I don't mind hanging out on the clothesline -- a little uncertainty, a little doubt, a few questions to pique my imagination and get me thinking in different directions -- is just fine with me. Everything in an impossibly wrapped package makes me want to rip off the bow and paper and throw it in the fire.

By now, you get the picture, so there's no need to say more than this: I didn't like it and won't be reading any more Rinehart anytime soon. (Then again, maybe I'm just sick and cranky.)


Lisa said...

I love your post. Funny how books that are not well written can inspire you to write an assessment that's more brilliant than anything you can come up with for something you actually enjoyed.

I especially love this analogy: "...I was bored almost from the beginning of this book, moved more slowly than a paddle boat across Bar Harbor (and was just about as arduous to maneuver)." You said just what I thought much better than I could have!
- Lisa

Rebecca H. said...

Agreed. I was bored too, and around 2/3 of the way through, I began to get more and more frustrated with the whole thing. I didn't care who did it. It felt very clumsily written and plotted. Oh, well -- now we know!

litlove said...

I am scared by how similar that quote is to the one I wrote as a parody - lol! Well, some books just don't cut the mustard. And I think it always shows up just what a thing of beauty a gripping, well-plotted book is when one ends up with a stolid badly-written one. The sense of frustration and resentment is real and palpable!

Smithereens said...

Your post made me laugh! Rinehart is no good with characterization. She was hailed the American Agatha Christie, but I guess it was because of the quantity of her production and not the quality.

Emily Barton said...

Lisa, you're so right. It seems I'm often far better at articulating why I didn't like something than I am at describing why I loved something. I sure do wish we'd all been able to get together to discuss this one, though. I am sure it would have been lively and tremendous fun!

Dorr, clumsily written and plotted: you hit the nail on the head.

Litlove, perhaps in some other life, you read this book and that image in the mirror stuck with you. And I hadn't thought of it that way, but maybe it's a good thing for me to be forced, occasionally, to read a really bad book to help be truly appreciate all the good ones I read.

Smithereens, yes, one of the reasons I thought we ought ot read Rinehart (and I have no one to blame but myself for my misery, because I chose this book) is her reputation for being the American Agatha Christie. I am now certain that must have been based on output and not writing ability.