The Murder Quadrille by Fidelis Morgan: A Clever, Well-Plotted, Fiasco of Crime

The Murder QuadrilleThe Murder Quadrille

by Fidelis Morgan


Kindle Edition, 461 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2016

Read: February 18 – 19, 2019

           Halfway through the dinner party Sarah Beaumont decided that she would definitely leave Martin, her husband of ten years.

As the thought blossomed in her mind she blushed. Bowing her head to hide her flushed cheeks, she toyed with the peas on her plate, chasing one behind a piece of sautéed potato before stabbing it with her fork. To tell the truth, she wished she wasn’t there at all, sitting round the table with a bunch of jabbering strangers, one of whom was Martin.

That’s pretty much the high point of the book for Sarah and Martin. Come to think of it, things go downhill for pretty much everyone at the dinner party. Before the meal is even complete, the wheels come off and disaster ensues.

In addition to Sarah and her jerk of a husband, the dinner party is made up of Martin’s friend/lawyer and his girlfriend, Martin’s bank manager (probably Sarah’s, too, but Martin’s the only one he deals with), and their temporary neighbor — a crime writer from the States. Naturally, they spend the bulk of the meal discussing a missing — and presumed dead — librarian. We get to spend time with each of them as we watch things fall apart. I’m pretty sure almost anything I say beyond this point will be a spoiler, and I’ve written and re-written the next sentence a dozen times (and what will be posted will be none of those).

You know those episodes of Frasier where there’s a misunderstanding of some sort, and things start to go wrong, and then things snowball out of control until the last couple of minutes when it all seems to get worse as he explains everything? Yeah, I know, that’s like 47% of the episodes. So you know what I’m saying.

This is a lot like that — but instead of Frasier’s career, or Niles’ reputation, or the fate of Martin’s chair; we’re dealing with life, death, murder charges, police and decomposition rates.

It’s gripping, it’s funny, it’s chaotic, it’s a riot. Morgan’s got a great style, an interesting vocabulary, and a plot that will keep you guessing. I probably shouldn’t have said chaotic — this is a carefully choreographed dance, as flashy and exciting as the best contender at the Jackrabbit Slim’s Twist Contest (or something less fun, like Dancing with the Stars).

There’s one big string left dangling at the end — which drives me crazy. It’s really not important, but she did such a great job tieing up the rest of the loose strings so it’s presence is worse. But given as fun as the rest of the book is, it’s totally forgivable. This one is a treat, you should give it a read. And if you do, maybe you can do a better job of selling this outrageous novel than I can.

—–

3.5 Stars

August by Jim Lusby: This troubled cop mystery just didn’t work for me

Technically, I read is as part of Fahrenbruary, but think I’ll skip the tagging and linking for obvious reasons.

AugustAugust

by Jim Lusby


Kindle Edition, 226 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2018
Read: February 19 – 20, 2019

It’s time for another round of, I don’t care enough about this to make too much effort, so here’s the Publisher’s blurb: (I’ve got to come up with a shorter name for that)

           Detective Sergeant Jack Mason’s search for an escaped convict is derailed by the discovery of the bodies of three teenagers in the crypt of a deconsecrated church.

Initially the case looks to be straightforward – teenage drug experimentation gone wrong, ending in a tragic double murder and suicide.

Tragic but no great mystery.

Some hope. Much to Mason’s annoyance any chance of a quick resolution become a distant hope when evidence of occult rituals are uncovered at the murder scene.

Jack Mason has no choice but to follow the case wherever it leads. As a result he finds himself embroiled in the dark underside of modern Irish society where the establishment closes ranks to ignore the spectre of institutional child abuse, where organised crime gangs operate an increasingly violent drug trade, and where populist politicians build their reputations whipping up hysteria over immigration.

As the complicated case unfolds, deeply buried memories from Mason’s past begin to resurface causing the competing demands of the investigation and his increasingly chaotic personal life to become almost overwhelming.

If the first 60% or so of the book had been as good as the last 40 I’d probably be raving about August, but I just could not connect in any way with the story, Mason or the other characters until that point — and somewhere around there it felt like the book changed and became interested in the crime, and the way that Mason’s past, the city’s elite, the crime and various gangs intersected.

But before then we got this strange combination of a new partner — with a mysterious past that’s totally unexplained (but hey, he knows a lot about occult rituals in the area), a looming threat from the regional police bureaucracy, and Mason’s self-destructive (and very unbelievable) lifestyle dominating the narrative. Maybe, maybe all of this works for other readers, but to me it felt coming in media res without ever getting the context explained to me. There’s far too much about what happened in the book that I don’t understand for me to recommend the book.

But the last part of the book redeemed the effort, and I found it compelling, so I can’t completely give a bad review to this.

—–

2 1/2 Stars

Fahrenbruary Repost: Briefly Maiden by Jacqueline Chadwick

Briefly Maiden
Briefly Maiden

by Jacqueline Chadwick
Series: Ali Dalglish, #2

Kindle Edition, 317 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2017
Read: November 30 – December 1, 2017

Vancouver Island’s Integrated Major Incident Squad has been called out again, and Ali Dalglish is brought along to consult — she’s official now, after the success of the case in In the Still, she got her credentials transferred to her new country. So she can help Inspector Rey Cuzzocrea with his profile of the murderer and get paid for it (which is probably useful after the recent disintegration of her marriage).

There’s a series of murders (not a serial killer, technically) in the perfectly pleasant little city of Cedar River (at least for most of the residents). They’re gruesome, clearly motivated by anger, with a sexual component. Ali and Cuzzocrea quickly note evidence of a pedophilia ring associated with the deaths. Which adds a level of complexity and tragedy to the crime — and makes it difficult to care much about the victims. While no one on the VIIMIS wants to help the killer with their campaign, they want to catch her(?) to help her recover from what they think must’ve happened to her(?). The obstacles standing in their way are not the typical or expected kind, and make this difficult case even more difficult.

As before, Ali is brilliant — not just when it comes to criminology, she’s just smart — she’s witty, she’s a font of trivia, and has a vocabulary that you just want to bask in (and borrow!). [Note: I’m not referring to her “blue”/”adult”/”4-letter” vocabulary, which is enough to put off some readers] Her emotional life is a mess, she’s in a slightly better place after the breakup of her marriage, but not that much. There’s some decent character growth at work here, too. She’s just such a great character I don’t think I can do her justice here.

It would have been very easy to make this a story about Ali, the brilliant psychologist helping out a bunch of cops who are fairly clueless (yet high-ranking and successful). But Chadwick doesn’t do that. The members of the Squad are capable — more than capable — and while they needed the perspective and expertise brought by Ali, there’s a good chance they’d have eventually put a lot of the pieces together on their own. For example, Superintendent Shaw would be easy to depict as a stuffed-shirt, unimaginative, by-the-book, and blind to anything that isn’t obvious — and most writers would depict him that way (I can’t help but think of Irwin Maurice Fletcher’s editor, Frank Jaffe, frequently when Shaw shows up) — but at one point he actually puts things together that no one else on the Squad did (most readers will be faster than him, but we have better information). Ali’s not blind to this either — yeah, she has an ego about her own expertise, but she is ready (if not always eager) to acknowledge when her teammates do good to work.

There were a few mis-steps, but when you’re doing so much right, you can afford a few of those. The one that I don’t understand is how little her friend/neighbor, Marlene, was used. Yes, her contribution was essential, but if Marlene had stayed home, Chadwick could’ve found another way to get those results. If you’re going to bring her along — use her. Her brief appearances were fun or pivotal, but there just weren’t enough.

I’ve spent some time over the last week trying to describe Chadwick’s writing style, because it’s so specific and so original. At one point, I decided that “aggressive” was the best adjective — it’s in-your-face, it grabs you by the scruff of your neck and shoves your nose into the text, daring you to even consider your Real Life responsibilities (family, eating, work, etc.) so it can smack the back of your head like Leroy Gibbs. But it’s also inviting, enticing, so you’re sucked in and love it — you want to wallow in the experience, desperate to find out what happens while not wanting to walk away from reading book for the foreseeable future. She’s entertaining and fun while writing about some of the most depraved and horrible things you’ve ever read — while never making the depravity or horror into anything other than evil and wrong.

Briefly Maiden is not a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts — but when the sum of its parts is so great, it can seem to be. If it was just Ali’s acerbic brilliance and skewed (skewering?) sensibilities pushing this story, it’d be something I’d tell you to read. Chadwick’s style is something to behold, no matter the subject. If it was just the heart-breaking and horrifying crime story, I’d give this a high commendation. If it was just for the inevitable but shocking conclusion, I’d say this was well worth your time and money. If it was just Ali’s vocabulary, you’d be smarter for having read it (I learned a few terms/words, and I bet you will, too). You put all that together, plus a few other points I should’ve made and didn’t (for whatever reason), and Briefly Maiden is one of the most effective (and affective) novels I’ve read this year. Stop reading this and go grab it — and In the Still, if you haven’t read that yet.

—–

5 Stars

Broken Dreams by Nick Quantrill: Meet Joe Geraghty, PI

Broken DreamsBroken Dreams

by Nick Quantrill
Series: Joe Geraghty, #1

Kindle Edition, 236 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2018
Read: February 20 – 21, 2018

Wow. This is how you introduce a P.I. Joe Geraghty starts this book with the police looking at him for the murder of woman. There wasn’t a lot of reason for him to be suspected — I mean, sure, he’d spent a lot of time hanging out around her house lately and he has only the flimsiest of alibis for the time she was killed in her home. His defense is that his firm was investigating her on behalf of her employer, and that he was being mugged by some teenagers when she was killed. Although they hadn’t been looking into her for very long, Joe and his partner had already found enough to want to dig into her further — and now Joe’s even more interested in the case, if only to make sure he doesn’t get put in the frame if the police get desperate for an arrest.

Step one is completing their investigation of the woman and the situation at her employers. Step two is figuring out the husband’s involvement. And then there’s a dive into other possibilities. It’s not long before Joe is beat up, repeatedly. There’s some back and forth with the police — and a lot of the other mainstays of PI fiction. I’m not suggesting the book is unoriginal at all — Quantrill hits all the right notes, and the murder investigation goes just like it should. There are plenty of turns and revelations for Joe to deal with — all of which end up painting a picture that looks far different from anything expected by the reader or any character at the beginning of the novel.

At the same time, they are visited by a woman dying of cancer. Her daughter had vanished 10 years earlier and she wants to find her and try to patch things up while there’s still time. She doesn’t have a lot of money to spend, but it seems like the kind of case that could make the detectives feel better about things than their typical fare — so they take the case. There’s not a lot of danger or suspense involved with this one — it’s mostly interviewing people, catching a break or two and a lot of hope that they’re not looking for a corpse. The missing woman — and her family — hadn’t had a very nice or easy life, and Joe uncovers a lot of ugliness along the way. But there’s some hope, too.

Joe was an athlete who had a brush with success before being sidelined by an injury and having to start over without any real tools or options. His business partner/mentor pulled him away from that life and helped train and establish him as a PI — if only to take over the business. Don hovers in the background of the novel, coming out to give advice (not always taken) and help connect Joe with sources of information. Hopefully we see more of him in action in future novels. Recently, Don’s daughter, Sarah, has come on board mostly as office support — but has moved into some investigative roles, as well. She’s a single mom, and much more practical than Joe — she’s primarily involved in the search for the missing woman, and Joe and Don work both cases, with Joe doing the majority of the legwork (and receiving all the beatings and threatenings).

Because individuals in both cases are from the same part of town, there’s some overlap in the investigations — but this isn’t one of those books where seemingly unrelated cases are really tied together. The two do inform each other a little bit, however, and Quantrill weaves them together well. It’s not a fast-paced novel, but the writing is so smooth that it might as well be, it’s very easy to find that multiple chapters have gone by without you noticing the passage of time, and once this story gets its claws into you, it won’t let go. The murder case is complex without getting complicated, and the motives behind everyone’s actions make a whole lot of sense.

There’s a very Lincoln Perry/Joe Pritchard feel to the relationship between Joe and Don, for those that remember Michael Koryta’s debut series. It’s not the same series, but there’s a very similar feel to the dynamic between the veteran with all the connections and the younger, less experienced detective with a troubled and oft-misspent youth. Throwing Don’s daughter (and granddaughter) into the mix changes the dynamic, too. Watching these three interact is almost enough, if the cases they were working were uneventful, I’d probably stick around.

There’s something going on with Don that I’m a little uneasy about, and am very curious about seeing what Quantrill gives us in the next few books. As well as a looming romantic entanglement for JOe — that could be a very sweet story, or a giant disaster (possibly a combination of the two — I might be holding out hope for option 3). But mostly, I’m looking forward to seeing how the events of this novel affect Joe moving forward — I don’t see how they can’t.

While writing this, it occurred to me that most of the mystery novels I’ve read lately have featured at least one law enforcement officer, which is a pretty big change for me. A few years ago, I’d have to think long and hard to come up with a law enforcement protagonists. So getting into a new PI is a very pleasant change of pace. The fact that it’s a good PI novel is just icing on the cake. This was a great ride, and I can assure you that you’ll be seeing me talk about the next two novels in the series pretty soon, I really want to spend more time with these characters and I bet you will, too.

—–

4 Stars

A Few (more) Quick Questions With…Duncan MacMaster

So, a couple of days ago, I re-ran the first batch of answers that MacMaster was kind enough to give. He f̶o̶o̶l̶i̶s̶h̶l̶y̶ generously agreed to answer some more questions for Fahrenbruary, which enabled me to focus more on the Kirby Baxter books. Hope you enjoy his answers as much as I did. There is gold below, folks (maybe a little dross, too, but mostly gold)

Tell us about your background and road to publication.
Small town 80s kid, film school survivor, who spent an awfully long time doing crappy jobs and collecting rejection letter horror stories. I had written A Mint-Conditioned Corpse quite some time before it was published. Quite a few years in fact, and it was rejected by dozens of agents and publishers over those years. One publisher had said they liked it, but another book set at a comic convention hadn’t done well, so they were rejecting mine, even though it was a different genre.

For a long time it gathered digital dust in my computer’s files. Then I encountered Chris McVeigh and Fahrenheit Press on twitter. They started following me before I submitted to them, and then they participated in an open call on twitter for book pitches. I pitched them Mint, they and another publisher expressed interest. I sent a copy to both, and about a week later Chris emailed me, telling me that he was halfway through, and asked if I had any plans for a sequel. I said yes, and a day or so later he finished reading Mint and invited me to join the Fahrenheit family. Since then I’ve published two Kirby Baxter mysteries, Mint, and Video Killed the Radio Star, and a stand-alone thriller called Hack, all with Fahrenheit.

I’ve made no secret that I’ve become a giant Kirby Baxter fan — it took a whole 8% of the first book to make me one — where did Kirby come from?
Thanks for enjoying Baxter and his gang. As for his origins, it was mostly from frustration. I have a notebook in a box somewhere that contains a very rough outline for what was then called “Drawn To Death,” and it is a wildly different story. That version was more of a broad farce. In this version my lead character was a “comic book guy” stereotype. An overweight, obnoxious, socially awkward, all-together unpleasant character.

I looked it over, and it annoyed me. Because it was all just lame exaggerated situations and jokes built around that negative “comic book guy” stereotype. I didn’t want to build a book around negatives like that.

I then decided to start all over again from scratch. (Something I do quite often with projects) I decided to show that there’s more positives to geek culture than that guy you see on The Simpsons.

So I created Kirby Baxter.

I named Kirby Baxter in honour of Jack Kirby, and the Baxter Building from the Fantastic Four. I made him thin, geeky, charming, but in a slightly awkward way. Then I decided that he would need complete freedom of travel, so I made him accidentally rich. Then I realized that he needed some brawn to accompany his brain, as well as allies he could talk to, so I created Gustav, Molly, and then his pal Mitch. I also realized that it’s not easy for an amateur to butt in on a criminal investigation, so I made up Baxter’s status as a part-time “special consultant” for Interpol, which gives him some privileges, as well as many responsibilities.

The only thing I kept from that original outline was the setting of a comic convention, and “Dick Wilco” as the name of a reclusive comics legend who mentored Baxter.

Mitch is a very fun character (and I hope to see him again soon, hint, hint) — but I can easily see where he’d become “too much” and step over the line from “amusing comic relief” to “annoying secondary character” — how do you approach that kind of character? How do you keep him from becoming annoying?
Mitch acts as the Id to Baxter who is a very rational and sober character. Mitch blurts out the things Baxter will never say, make the mistakes Baxter would never make, and it’s a serious risk for someone like Mitch to go from being comic relief to a real pain in the butt.

One way to avoid that is to limit his appearances. Mitch is mentioned, but does not appear in Video Killed the Radio Star, but his role as the id of the story is taken up by a new character named Shelley Flugen. She’s a celebrity gossip blogger, and latches herself onto Baxter’s team in hopes of landing a big scoop.

While Shelley played a similar role to Mitch in her relationship with Baxter, she’s a very different person from Mitch. Where Mitch sees himself as a trickster, Shelley sees herself as a journalist and an investigator in her own right. Which leads to different situations and a totally different kind of comic relief.

Mitch will return, but it’s best to keep him in controlled doses.

I’ve often heard that writers, or artists in general, will forget hundreds of positive reviews but always remember the negative — what’s the worst thing that someone’s said about one of your books, and has it altered your approach to future books?
I’m not trying to brag, but I don’t really get many bad reviews. The worst thing that was said, was that someone described my book as “wordy.” Which is odd, because I tend to be pretty ruthless when it comes to cutting out needless words.

I try to avoid that sort of trollish negativity, because it’s just not worth it to let them run your life. If they don’t like you, or your work, they’re not your audience.

Last time, you said something about “a more experimental project examining male archetypes in crime fiction and the concept of the unreliable narrator.” Can you update us on that? Is there anything else your readers should be watching for?
My project about male archetypes and unreliable narrators is on the back burner right now, because when you write what I call a “puzzle box” story with multiple narrators, all contradicting each other, either by ignorance, or design, it can overwhelm you, and in this case another project jumped out and tackled me with incredible immediacy.

Right now I’m putting together a potential third Baxter novel that was inspired by recent documentaries that caused a lot of buzz on social media. This material is so ripe for satire, and for homicide. It was just too perfect for Baxter to pass up, and I have to act fast to capture that immediacy, that freshness. Strike while the iron is hot, so to speak.

As this Q&A is inspired by Fahrenbruary, I figure I should give you another opportunity to say something nice about your publisher and the culture around it. Or heck, go full punk and say something horrible about them.
The most horrible thing I could say about Fahrenheit is that not enough people buy Fahrenheit books. Seriously, they are a publisher who has something for everyone, the sort of diversity and variety you just won’t find with most of the big publishers.

Get out there and buy Fahrenheit books. Not just mine, but they’re a good way to start, but check out the whole catalogue. You will find something to love.

Was that punk enough for you?

Thanks for your time, Mr. MacMaster — and thanks for the great reads, I can’t wait to see what you have in store.

Dead is Beautiful by Jo Perry: Another Winner for this Supernatural Duo

Dead is BeautifulDead is Beautiful

by Jo Perry

Series: Charlie & Rose Investigate, #3

Kindle Edition, 268 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2019
Read: February 15 – 18, 2019

I can’t explain how death works––I can’t explain cruelty or love––and I don’t know anything for certain except that I failed at life.

Well, I refuse to fuck up my death any more than I already have––

And whatever it means or requires––I won’t fail Rose.

And failing Rose actually seems to be something that can happen here — we’ve seen Charlie and Rose interact with other ghosts before, but not for long — somehow, this time there’s a ghost that they have prolonged — and repeated — interaction with. This other ghost has threatened Rose — despite seemingly being unable to do anything to her, the intent and tone of voice used, scares Rose. And the one thing that’s definitely changed about Charlie post-death is his commitment to this dog, his ability to care for her.

But before we meet this ghost — and see the gruesome, horrific way they become one — we see another killing. The killing of a protected tree. What’s worse, this tree is home to an Spotted Owl and her owlet. While the tree is being (illegally) removed from a plot of land, the owlet falls out and is injured. It was these events that brought Rose, and therefore Charlie, to this area. Coming to the defense of the tree and the owls is a very naked and tattooed woman. She brings in the authorities, and sets off a chain of events that I won’t try to summarize, because you wouldn’t believe me and Perry does a better job than I would in a sentence or two.

This woman, it turns out is named Eleanor Starfeather (really). She’s a doula (birth and death, which is a thing that I just learned exists) and a house sitter — among other things. The house she’s currently sitting belongs to Charlie’s brother and his wife. Charlie’s brother, we already know, is not anyone you want to know. Greedy, superficial, arrogant, vain and uncaring — and his wife is worse. The bulk of the book’s action revolves around these three as they deal with the fall-out from the removal of this tree, the removal of the owlet and the mother owl’s reaction to both being gone. But it also involved a development company — which is developing the land next to Charlie’s brother and a property where Charlie used to live — not that you can tell that anymore.

Charlie and Rose witness a murder near that second property and are pushed into trying to figure out who was behind that murder. Our ghostly pair are hovering around the areas of overlap between the Venn diagram describing these people, company and properties. And slowly, a full picture emerges allowing them to figure out who was behind the murder. Along the way, we (via Charlie and Rose) get to watch the fall-out — involving city politics, real estate development, lawyers, a vengeance-seeking bird, a séance, a mini-Cooper driving Scotsman, and a natural disaster — oh, yeah, and Charlie’s brother having several of the worst days of his life in a row.

This all primarily takes place, where else could it, in Beverly Hills. A place that Charlie clearly has strong opinions about:

Leave it to the City of Beverly Fucking Hills to have “Beverly Hills” engraved twice on its police badges just to emphasize that their black necktied, highly trained, buff, and attractive Beverly Fucking Hills peace officers protect and serve the plastic surgery-altered, chemically peeled, hairlines suture-tightened, Botox-injected, Viagra-aroused, personally trained, lifestyle-coached, professionally organized, blow-dried, sixteen-thousand-dollar blinged-out handbag cultists and their Orc boyfriends and husbands here in this omphalos of malignant narcissism, this authentic-human-emotion-sucking manicured vortex with its fluffy cashmere clouds scudding across the Tiffany-blue vacancy that hangs above the abomination known the world over as Beverly Fucking Hills.

Which adds a different feel to the book than we’ve had in the series. We’ve bounced around from place to place in this series, but I don’t knows that I’ve had such a strong sense location before (I’m not suggesting the earlier books were missing anything, but this has added something). We do spend some time in Charlie’s old neighborhood, but not that much.

It’s possible that Charlie refers to the city with the two words that most people use, but I think it’s always his special elongated form. Ditto for his older sibling, or as he seemingly always refers to him, “my shit brother.” Maybe one reason that Charlie and Rose are still hanging around is that Charlie still holds such determined thoughts and passionate feelings about things like his brother and this city.

In Dead is Good, we got to witness Charlie realize how much someone meant to him, in ways hadn’t really seen in life. In Dead is Beautiful, we get to witness Charlie smitten with a woman — of course, it’ll be unrequited (and would’ve likely been if he was flesh and blood, too), but he is fixated on Eleanor. It’s a side of him that’s nice to see. It’s also helpful for there to be people he actually likes involved with everything he’s witnessing, so he can be positive about some of what happens. By the end of the novel, Charlie does realize a few things about his brother and the way he thinks about him — I’m not sure there’s growth there, but there’s self-awareness, which is almost as good.

We also get a few more clues about the nature of the afterlife and how things work for the souls of the deceased (man or beast…at least dog), but no real answers. I’m okay with that, I don’t think I want answers, I like not getting this afterlife, as long as Charlie and Rose are figuring out what the living are up to.

Last week, when I reposted what I’d written about the first three books, I felt awkward about my frequent references to “funny.” When I think back on these books, I don’t think about funny — I think about the crimes, the victims, the reflections on society and death that these books focus on. But I felt vindicated reading this, because it’s a very funny book. There’s slapstick all over the place — even when the events depicted aren’t that funny, they’re told in a way that clearly tells the reader to smile and chuckle. Just that description of Beverly Hills above demonstrates the oft-comedic voice.

But it’s not all funny — there’s a reverence toward death, toward life, toward the relationship between people and dogs. The fate and well-being of the tree and owls are treated seriously and with care. The comedy comes in Charlie’s observations of and reactions to the events he witnesses. His first exposure to Alexa, for example, made me laugh out loud.

As Charlie (ever so gradually) evolves (Charlie of the first two books doesn’t treat the other ghost the way this Charlie does), as we spend more time in this world, Perry keeps improving — this is one of those series that improves as it goes on. These unique protagonists get us to look at life and events in a different kind of way, while reading very different kind of mysteries. I hope I get to keep spending time with them for a long time to come — and I strongly encourage you to join in the fun.

—–

4 Stars

Fahrenbruary Repost: Video Killed the Radio Star by Duncan MacMaster: A Murder Mystery as Fun as The Buggles’ Song

(or the cover by The Presidents of the United States of America, either will work)

Video Killed the Radio StarVideo Killed the Radio Star

by Duncan MacMaster
Series: Kirby Baxter, #2

Kindle Edition, 261 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2018
Read: October 15 – 16, 2018

“I fear we will never be mistaken for the Algonquin Round Table.”

“We’ll have to work on our witty repartee,” said Molly. “I plan on taking a course on banter, ripostes, badinage, and persiflage.”

“Even persiflage?”

“Especially persiflage,” said Molly. “There is nothing worse than sub-par persiflage.”

“You might need to get a sub-par persiflage lanced.”

“We’ve hit the nonsense phase of the night earlier than usual.”

“I like nonsense,” said Kirby, “it distracts me.”

Kirby Baxter just wants to live a quiet life out of the spotlight: hanging out with his girlfriend, Molly, when he can; restoring a car with his valet/bodyguard/etc.; and drawing his comics. And now that the excitement about the murder he solved at Omnicon dying down, he’s on the verge of doing that. But the mayor of his hometown knows Kirby, and has no shame in extorting his cooperation with a small problem that he’s having.

You see, one of the town’s major landmarks — an old, abandoned mansion — is in dire need of upkeep and remodeling. And a reality show full of C-List celebrities (maybe D- or E-list) have recently set up shop to do that work. But the city’s having second thoughts and they want Kirby and his über-perception skills to find a reason to shut down production and send them packing to disrupt another locale.

Kirby visits the production, talks to the cast and producers, looks around and comes up with a lot of observations and conclusions — and could cause a lot of inconvenience and embarrassment for everyone involved from those observations — but he can’t find what the mayor wants. That accomplished, he gets back to pursuing his best life now — which lasts just a few hours. Because before he can start to collect from the mayor for the work, one of the celebrities is found dead.

So, it’s back to the mansion for Kirby, this time to act as a consultant ot the local police as they investigate this suspicious death. Which is soon followed by another. And an attack on another cast member. And . . . well, you get the idea.

It’s nice that MacMaster didn’t repeat the whole “Kirby has to win over a skeptical and antagonistic police officer” thing — this time, thanks to most of the force having grown up with him, they all accept his talents and skills — an expect him to deliver.

The cast of the reality show, “Million Dollar Madhouse,” is filled with the typical collection of has-beens, almost-weres, and celebs trying to stage a comeback. Initially, I rolled my eyes at each of them, but the more time I spent with them, the more I appreciated and enjoyed them. In particular, the Kardashian-esque character totally won me over. Like in the previous book, there’s a large cast of characters that MacMaster juggles expertly — there are so many suspects to the murders, as well as witnesses for Kirby and the police to wade through.

Almost every serious suspect has the same defense — they didn’t want the initial victim dead. They wanted him to make a fool out of himself on national TV, possibly seriously injuring himself with a power tool. Some would follow that up with some other form of revenge — but if he’s dead, no one could get the revenge they wanted. It’s not ideal, but it’s an honest defense.

Gustave was slightly less super-human this time out — but he’s still in the Ranger/Hawk/Joe Pike nigh-impossible stratosphere. As much as I like everyone else in this series, it’s arguable that Gustave is MacMaster’s best creation — not just the character, but how MacMaster uses him.

I did miss Mitch. But was glad to see Molly and Kirby talk about him — and even make a joke he wasn’t around to make himself. It’s probably good that he wasn’t around — it’ll mean when we see him again, it’ll be easy to appreciate him without worrying about over exposure.

In the place of Mitch, we have Molly’s assertive and cunning cousin — she runs a gossip-website and wheedles her way into the investigation in order to land a story big enough to put her and her site on the map. Kirby clearly vacillates between finding uses for her and finding her distracting.

Molly and Kirby are cuter together than they were previously, and I could watch the two of them banter any day. It seemed harder to incorporate Molly into the story this time, and hopefully it’s easier for MacMaster in Kirby #3, but as difficult as it was, it was absolutely worth it.

I’m not sure exactly what it is about MacMaster’s writing that works so well for me, but it does. Just before I started writing this, I started to draw some parallels between these Kirby Baxter books and Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game and The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel). I didn’t have time to fully flesh this idea out, but Raskin’s work definitely was formative for me and if the comparison hold up, that could explain a lot. The mix of humor, real emotions and complex mystery is the sweet spot for me and MacMaster consistently hits it. It’s not easy, there are precious few who try — and fewer that succeed. This is the third novel I’ve read by him and it seals the deal, I’ll buy everything he writes as soon as I can without really looking at what the book is about.

I was a little worried that this book wouldn’t live up to A Mint-Conditioned Corpse, and I don’t think it did — but I don’t know what could have for me. I’d enjoyed the other so much that it’s almost impossible to live up to — and the reality show setting didn’t do anything for me — they just leave me cold. The fact I’m rating Video Killed the Radio Star as high as I am is all about how effortlessly charming and entertaining this seems. Effortless always, always, always equals blood, sweat and tears — or at least a lot of work. This must’ve taken a great deal of labor, and it was absolutely worth it. A clever mystery, clever dialogue, and very clever characters in a funny, twisty story. The Kirby Baxter books are must reads, no doubt about it. Give this one a shot — I don’t see how you can’t enjoy it.

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4 1/2 Stars