For Valentine’s Day, my local library had a table filled with books wrapped in brown paper. These were Book Blind Dates, meant to entice library users to try something new despite displaying the first paragraph of the official synopsis on the front of the package. It was the best idea ever and totally in the realm of Valentine’s Day. So naturally I picked the synopsis that sounded the least like a historical fiction romance and took that home.
What I got was Written Off, a cute mystery novel by E. J. Copperman. The premise was out there but still fun: a mystery writer gets a call to consult on a missing persons case by her own fictional character. Attention-grabbing premise, don’t you agree? And it’s a mystery, which is out of my normal wheelhouse. Then again, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein is also out of my wheelhouse but it is still my favorite book of all time. And so I gave it a go.
Gonna spoil things now: I only read half the book. (Then I skipped to the end because I just had to know, you know?)
Like everyone else on this planet, I keep reading a book because it is interesting. In this book, someone is kidnapping mystery authors and eventually murdering them. I can understand if real life kidnappings yield no results on suspects or motivations in three days’ book-time, but I don’t expect things in a fictional story to reflect reality. I expect the narrative to skip the boring parts of the story, especially a story billing itself as a pulpy mystery.
Instead, the author felt it necessary to get into the writing process. The main character is a mystery writer so writing is a big part of her life, sure. However, there were several passages that made me question their necessity, particularly when the narrative extrapolated on the intricacies of writing or explained the original thoughts behind a character’s backstory. Unless the erratic sleep schedule of a writer is integral to the plot, the answer is no, those passages were not necessary.
Instead of focusing on their writing, the main character should have focused on the mystery that planted itself on her doorstep. I mean, one of her colleagues is missing! And she doesn’t feel it her duty to help find her? I was halfway through the book and there had yet to be a major lead on the main mystery. At that point, couldn’t the narrative have sent us on a wild goose chase? Or, even better, have the main character attempt to work through a personal crisis that ran parallel to the main plot?
Maybe I’m too used to the standard 4-act structure. You know the one:
ACT 1 – Introduction to characters and setting and the mystery
ACT 2 – Mystery attempted to be solved and failed
ACT 3 – Fall out of the failed attempt. Regrouping and reanalyzing
ACT 4 – Mystery attempted for the second time and successful (unsuccessful for tragedies or cliffhangers)
This is the standard movie plot structure. Even if you are not consciously familiar with it, your subconscious is. Except this structure guarantees something should have happened by the halfway point of the book. In Written Off, the book was still in Act 1 for twice the amount of time it should have been. It was not engaging; it was boring.
My biggest peeve, however, was the main character who was a self-insert for the author. For one, the character herself is a 30-something-year old author who complained about a couple in a cafe who were on their phones and admitted to knowing nothing about computers despite making a living on one. A computer is the gateway to your livelihood and you don’t know how to protect it? You don’t know the specific uses of social websites other than the general term “social media”? Seems silly to me. The main character’s attitude towards Millennials and technology aside, their previously-mentioned focus on explaining their writing process adds to my claim. So not only was this book taking its time going from plot-point to plot-point, it started to feel more and more like the author’s ego in book form.
Despite the novel’s premise, it was not as meta as I had hoped it would be. The fourth wall remained sadly in tact. There were no insightful nods to the reader (that I noticed). As far as I could tell, it was a straight up “inside guide to the author’s life” disguised as a mystery novel.
I got bored.
Typical first date, too. A bit too egotistical. A bit less reciprocation. Witty banter, though. I can give it that. Written Off is recommended to people who enjoy paperback mysteries.