Book Report: The Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Susan McBride (2004)

Book coverI thought I first heard about Susan McBride because she was the first winner of the Mayhaven Publishing prize for fiction which came with a publishing contract. I entered my novel John Donnelly’s Gold in the same competition (well, a later one–not the same as Ms. McBride) and did not win. But that’s not exactly how it went down. Thanks to this blog’s waybacking, I can see that I read And Then She Was Gone in 2006 because I’d discovered the author as a local author on the Big Sleep Books Web site and then learned about the Mayhaven Publishing contest from her. So. You know, I have nobody left who can tell me what I was like when I was younger. Which is why I keep on blogging even on days when this blog gets readers in the single digit.

At any rate, perhaps I will now remember that I have read something by this author. Likely, though, I will remember this book because it’s part of the Debutante Dropout series, of which I hear from time to time. And it’s got a blurb by Elaine Viets on the back, and I am pretty sure Viets was the last decent metro columnist in St. Louis. But enough about that.

So, about this particular book:

Andy, the first-person narrator of the book, is a Web designer. Her widowed mother is a society woman, and her parents raised Andy to be a princess, but Andy rebels against all that, working for non-profits as a Web master. Her mother hooks her up on an emergency basis with a Martha Stewart type of personality whose local show has just been syndicated, and her former Web master quit right before the big launch party because the hostess is a diva. So Andy navigates this millieu, the hostess, her boytoy trainer (who is a bit of a sugar sonny who glomps onto wealthy widows), the hostess’s daughter (also a partner of the boytoy trainer) who the hostess has ignored on her climb to success and who has a host of mental problems and a history of addictions, the company chef who does not feel he is appreciated, and various hangers-on in that retinue. She also deals with her mother’s pressures, the story of the black family moving in down the block, and her relationship with a defense attorney that her mother set her up with.

Finally, on page 262 of 353, someone dies. It’s a small thing, I know, but when you have murder in the title, one expects a dead body before long. Instead, the book focuses on the main character drifting through scenes with these people until, after a disaster at the launch party, the next day the hostess drops dead at a party hosted by the main character’s mother to welcome the new black neighbors to be filmed as an episode of the new show casting light on the ladies’ club having the party. So the main character drifts along with a reporter friend, who uncovers the family secret (the adopted daughter of the new black family is actually the natural daughter of the hostess, given for adoption thirty years ago and recently hired as the hostess’s personal assistant because she wanted to be closer to her mother). Whodunit? The daughter, accidentally, who just wanted to make her mother sick and need her (the daughter’s) help to recover, but a shared genetic defect made her predisposed to dying from a dose of ephedra–as the daughter herself almost did the day before (?).

At any rate, the book has a plot and group of characters worthy of a Chandler or a Ross MacDonald book. However, the first-person narrator kind of drifts through the scenes within it, and most of the scenes and verbiage deal with the narrator’s responses to her mother and the other characters in the book. Although she is present at the major events, she’s only a witness to many of them, and other characters (the reporter friend, a police detective, also women) conduct much of the investigation. The subplot of the adopted daughter is really just tacked on, and the ending is very quick (after the murder, the scenes include a trip to a small town to uncover the family secret, and discovering where the boytoy disappeared to–the pond behind the hostess’s house).

So it’s a bit like a Jane Austen book’s sensibility applied to a rich-people-doing-bad-things mystery a la Chandler or Ross MacDonald. But it didn’t work for me as it prioritized wordy reflection on personal relationships over investigation and action. Not my bag, baby.

I flagged a couple of things (including the exact page where the murder occurred because I was starting to think that no murder would actually take place).

Trump Sighting:
When the author is chiding herself, she says:

Sure, Andy, sure. And Ivana Trump shops at Wal-Mart.

I am thinking about starting to actively track mentions of Trumps in books from the 1980s through the early part of the century, where Trump was shorthand for ostentatious and gaudy. Perhaps it will illustrate how prevalent he was in popular culture for thirty-five years before running for President–a feat that modern “celebrities” like Kanye West will have a difficult time replicating. Plus, it will make it easier for the authorities to identify wrong thinkers in the past who mentioned the name of He Who Must Be Scrubbed/He Who Must Be Forgotten and places where the Unholy Name must be expunged.

Misquoting Alanis:

The author misquotes a (then) nine-year-old (now 26-year-old, old man) Alanis Morissette song when she says “Life is a funny thing…isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?” The song never says “Life is a funny thing.” The song says:

Life has a funny way of sneaking up on you
Life has a funny, funny way of helping you out

Heaven help me, but I remember that song. I think Jagged Little Pill might have been the first CD I bought. And possibly the only non-duplicate CD I have ever sold or donated.

Blogs Educated Me To:

My daddy used to drive a Caddy. A Brougham d’Elegance that he often bragged was inches longer than the Lincoln Town Car.

I know what brougham means because I read Riverside Green, frequent contributor Tom Klocktau often posts about this particular body style.

And, fun fact: When I was in college and finally getting a driver’s license, my father asked me to move my great-grandmother’s Lincoln from the driveway to the street, saying that it would probably be my car someday. I had trouble parking the thing because I could not see the curb across that great expanse of blue hood. Also, my great-grandmother lived several years after I finished school and moved back to Missouri, by which time I had gotten my red old yellow car–and probably one or two others that I drove into the ground besides.

Memories of What I Once Was:

There was even a shot of her [the hostess] in a yoga pose that had me wondering if someone had not done a bit of airbrushing to get that foot behind her head.

You know, I used to be able to do that, when I was a kid. I don’t know why it was a thing for us to compare in 1981, but we did. Maybe it was an episode of Three’s Company where Jack gets his legs stuck in the lotus position. I could sit in the lotus position, even swinging my legs into position without using my hands, and I could put my foot behind my head. My mother and brother could, too. I can’t any more–I have been a little leary of stretching the groin since I tore a muscle in it stretching a couple years ago in martial arts class–but my boys and wife can. I have a book of stretching, and maybe I will get into it and get there. I can kick head high, though, and really, who needs more than that?

Wrong Punch:

Amber Lynn swung at her husband, catching him with a right hook beneath the chin.

I know, I read one book on boxing, and suddenly I think I am an expert, but a punch landing under the chin is generally an uppercut. A hook would land on the side of the chin as the motion of the arm and fist are mostly horizontal.

So I will slot this book in the 2021 Winter Reading Challenge in the Female Protagonist category, leaving open the Crime slot in case I pick up another crime novel before the end of next month. And I probably won’t seek out more McBride, but the odds that I have previously remembered the name at book sales over the last decade and stocked some of her other works on my to-read bookshelves are pretty good. And, now that I think of it, I might have an Elaine Viets novel somewhere that I might want to check out.

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