Monday, January 10, 2011

Naked Once More, by Elizabeth Peters


I listened to this* because I love Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody series--fun mysteries steeped in the the minutiae of archeology and Egyptian history.  This is the first book of a different series, featuring former librarian turned novelist Jacqueline Kirby, and it's just not as good.  The mystery is entirely reliant on the arcane feuds of authors and agents, and is set in a rather loosely sketched contemporary "small Southern town" it lacks the exoticism of location and time that Amelia Peabody books have going for them.

The plot starts with the discovery of a car accident crime scene in this small Southern town, and the missing body of an author named Kathleen Darcy.  Darcy wrote a best selling debut novel called "Naked on the Ice"--a sort of "Clan of the Cave Bear."  After seven years,Darcy is declared legally dead and a sequel is authorized by her heirs.  Jacqueline Kirby is chosen over several other authors considered for the job, and she moves to Pine Ridge (or whatever it's called) to research Darcy's remaining papers and to start the writing process.  Things start going badly: anonymous threats, break-ins, and clumsy attempts on Jacqueline's life.  When a book seller is found dead under a toppled book shelf, Kirby finds she has to solve the murder and the mystery of  what happened to Darcy seven years ago.

Peters assembles a large cast of characters, or as they are known in the business, "suspects."  Before we even get the the question of the author, we are introduced to Jacqueline Kirby, her old agent Christopher, her new agent Bouton (or "Bootsy" as she calls him), the subordinate assigned to Kirby named Sarah, the other four authors who are competing to write the sequel, and Patrick O'Brien, a cop and former lover of Kirby's.  There are the Darcys--Mom, who has gone completely potty; Kathleen's siblings St. John, Sherry and Laurie, and Laurie's husband and three kids; as well as the the family's lawyers--three generations of Craigs.   There are Tom and Paul, the models for the rival hunks in "Naked on the Ice."  Tom and his wife Molly run the inn where Jacqueline stays, Kevin the busboy, Mrs. Sheridan annoying deaf woman who is a "regular" at the inn, and a few townspeople with walk-on roles.  None of them ever snaps into focus as a real character, so there's really no reason to try to guess whodunit--they are all fungible.

Approximately two-thirds of the book goes by before there is any sense of urgency or plot.  Jacqueline has to get selected, do publicity, move to Pine Ridge, read through Kathleen Darcy's papers, begin to draft a book outline, and meet all the characters/suspects.  Sure, there is something fishy about Kathleen Darcy's disappearance, which has been ruled a suicide, but Kirby's too busy meeting deadlines and fending off unwanted dinner invitations to look into it.  There is also a lot of ink devoted to the logistics of how she will get her mail without tipping off media about her location--this is just as boring as it sounds.

Things don't actually get going until poor Jan Wilson, the book store owner, is found dead.  The bookcase on top of her body was heavy enough to have killed her, but it had been secured into the floor with three inch bolts.  And Paul calls her "Kathleen."  Yes, there is reason to believe that Kathleen isn't dead--or wasn't until this happened.  And Kirby has to figure out who tried to kill Kathleen seven years ago in order to solve this murder and keep anybody else from being killed.

This is where the esoterica of publishing gets to be important.  Kathleen Darcy left a will, made two weeks before her "death" with elaborate instructions for how a sequel should be pursued, and something about the percentages of sales constitutes a motive to kill her before she wrote the sequel. It turns out that Kathleen planned her own disappearance and planned to be the writer who was chosen to write her own sequel.  But since her new identity as an author didn't use Bootsy as her agent, she got tricked out of the assignment.  So she was mad and wrote threatening letters to those who manipulated the process.  So, it turns out that Bootsy was the one who tried to kill her back in the day because she had warned him she was going to fire him as her agent.  So he cooked up some elaborate plan (?) to kill her before she fired him (?) so he could keep getting his percentage of her book sales (?) and then use one of his own writers to develop a sequel.  But for some reason he panicked and thought the book store owner was actually Kathleen Darcy so he killed her before she could reveal what he had done?

I don't know--I was hoping it was the ditzy, pregnant inn-keeper's wife who would turn out to have been jealous of the successful writer who had used her husband as the model for her Main Hunky Character.  That would have been more interesting in my opinion.

Competently written, with some interesting insights into the workings of literary business, the book suffers from an abrasive main character, few memorable characters, and a meandering plot where pages go by but little seems to happen.  Not Peters' best work.
 
I wouldn't endorse this book, but I can endorse another Jacqueline Kirby book: The Murders of Richard III.  That one was fun.
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*See how I did that?  Got it from Audible.com, read by Barbara Rosenblatt, who is generally delightful and has been known to improve a book with her gifted acted.  Can't say she succeeded this time, however.

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