You Gotta Have a Gimmick

Writing a mystery series can't be easy. You have to have characters who are compelling enough to support multiple books, you need to dream up a new mystery in within the constraints of the series, you need to move the lives of the main characters forward while still propelling the mystery along, and you need to put up with readers like me who love a good series but don't like the recurring characters to become the main event. Then there's also a more recent trend in mystery series: just like the strippers in Gypsy, you gotta have a gimmick.

Ellen Crosby's gimmick is wine. Her Wine Country series features a plucky mystery-solving heroine - Lucie Montgomery - who runs her family's vineyard in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and the plots usually involve, well, wine. This is a series is more cozy than hard boiled with numerous cups of coffee and tea being consumed in the proceedings. Lucie has lots of friends and family roaming through the book. Older men are "like a father to her", she has a "beloved grandfather", and everyone freely offers relationship advice. Quite frankly, it's the sort of book that has to work hard not to get on my nerves.

Unfortunately Crosby writes this series in the first person. That's an odd choice in the cozy sub-genre and generally a tough one to pull off in any mystery series. It can work if, like Dennis Lehane's Patrick Kenzie, the story is framed by the narrator's worldview but if the story is framed by the narrator talking about her own life and her friends it's difficult for the narrator not to come across as a self-obsessed, self-justifying bore. It's even worse when the writer tries to fit in a lot of backstory that isn't directly tied to the mystery. Only 44 pages in and Lucie has twice told us she spent "months in Catoctin General learning to walk again" which comes across as poignant the first time and slightly self-pitying the second time. Then there's the fact that Lucie can't even have dinner without telling us about her grandfather's "famous" cheesecake recipe. Since her grandfather is a) dead and b) not part of the mystery at hand this sort of thing earns a rousing "who cares?" from me. Lucie isn't a particularly witty narrator nor is her worldview unique and Crosby's action follows Lucie's days in too close detail. (Do you really want to read about the narrator's intake of ibuprofen?) Too often she comes across as an over privileged woman who's too eager to throw herself a pity party. The mystery - the murder of an unlikable woman - isn't terribly compelling either.

I'm not the likely target for this book. I love mysteries but I'm not a fan of this kind - I like my recurring characters to app ear but not dominate - and I rarely think about wine unless I'm ordering it or drinking it. I also hold mysteries printed in hardcover to a higher standard than paperback originals. This isn't the worse book I've read this year - The Great Upheaval established too high a standard to be beaten - but it's a disappointment. It's also a reminder that I should know better than to read books with main characters who spell the name Lucy with an "ie".

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