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Two hits and a Ms

two hits and a miss

If you like Agatha Christie or Raymond Chandler, you'll love Marcia Muller. Till the Butchers Cut Him Down (The Women's Press, 5.99) is the tenth case for Private Investigator Sharon McCone, who first hit the US in 1977 and sparked a new wave of ace female detectives, adding immensely to the genre.

Muller takes several plausible storylines and weaves them into a fast-paced drama we can - just - keep up with. Enriching the basic plot are a) a simmering relationship with an enigmatic lover, b) nostalgia for her ex-colleagues as McCone sets up on her own, c) misgivings over an over-zealous new assistant, and d) the intrigue of the client himself - the maverick 'Suitcase' Gordon, dimly remembered from college and a dismal one-night stand.

Now they share little but idealism, which is why she is tempted when he offers "the chance to help me alter the course of the history of San Francisco" if she can find "the bastard who's trying to kill me." He has some powerful enemies but she can't pinpoint anyone at first; doing so throws up a range of credible locations from fantastic to sordid, and a gallery of engaging characters. Eventually she foresees a conflict between "my loyalty to my old friend Suits and my loyalty to my old friend the truth" which climaxes in thriller-style action and a volley of well-sprung surprises. McCone earns her fee and a financial springboard for the next few plots. Roll on number 11.

Less satisfying is She Came by the Book by Mary Wings (The Women's Press, 5.99). Detective Emma Victor's previous adventures are probably better, but this reads like a third book, produced to placate publisher, not muse. Page 1 coolly details the death throes of a "spectacular" young woman from cyanide poisoning. Some laboured scene-setting follows as we are introduced to more characters than necessary, including a slew of ethnic origins. At odds with this political correctness are Victor's frequent readiness to belittle women ("Runway models, anyone? Carla had had them all in front of her lens. Seductive waifs. Voluptuous sluts. Fashion skeletons...") and to label (white/black, straight/gay, middle class/upper middle class) rather than characterise properly.

The 'plot' unfolds with shock tactics more worthy of Michael Winner than The Women's Press. The victims are all women, their mutilations lingeringly described. This ghoulishness - and I spare you the worst - extends to peering up one freshly murdered victim's crotch to count how many times she has her labia pierced. Mercifully neither this, nor details like "the cats showed me the tight pink buds of their assholes" advance the story. Victor even sees violence in non-events. Vainly attempting a head-butt, she anticipates "a pleasing celery sound that never happened." Imagination still in overdrive, she finds it "hard not to see massive erect penises in the phalanx of columns". I usually manage - but then I don't grow marijuana (female plants, of course) for cancer and AIDS victims (of course), from which she gets a "contact high" (of course).

There's over-writing too. "'Lee?' Helen murmured. The word began with a surprised whisper and ended in a horrible, heart-breaking certainty." Pretty good for one syllable. And there are too many half-sentences used as full ones, for impact. Ah well. As the last page says, "After forty, everything bad has happened once." Thanks for the tips on sprouting marijuana.

Infinitely better is Reader, I Murdered Him, Too (The Women's Press, 5.99) edited by Helen Windrath. Wings' contribution here is narrated by Sergeant Laura Deleuse (briefly glimpsed in She Came), whose dry professional restraint nicely underscores the savagely ironic tale of a post-operative cancer patient who turns the gun on her intruder - and makes him eat her special diet.

This is a superb selection, offering armchair criminals and sleuths endless ways of getting even with the world. In Meg O'Brien's Kill the Woman and Child, irresistible screwball Jesse James is trained to kill, but has her own agenda and crashes through the pages pulling punches and triggers with glorious, self-mocking humour. In contrast Pam Mason's 19th century story is one of the simplest, beautifully told in plain, elegant prose... while Loveday Blakey brings office politics to the boil in an archly surreal, Muriel Spark-ish tale. A variety of styles is showcased, from seasoned professionals like Val McDermid, who gives a new slant on a good old-fashioned don't-read-the-end-first mystery, to tantalising new talents like Robyn Vinten, whose stark account of a teenager's attempt to avenge her murdered sister produces one of the most haunting images of the book.

Traditionalists won't be disappointed, nor will those looking for wit, realism or some refreshingly gay twists. With notes on the contributors to help you track down more, this is a great introduction to some of today's best crime fiction. Enjoy!

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Julia Deakin is a member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders.
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