Friday, January 4, 2013

"Sign Off" by P.A. McLinn (Review By Tom)

'Sign Off' by PA McLinn
I think that GMTA's change in format encourages a more relaxed approach to review writing and I'm going to take full advantage of this.

Thanks to Kitty's review cupboard, I set off on my Christmas holidays with a mixed bag of books to read under the tree. The first two up both turned out to be stories that, in pre-PC days, might have been called 'Girl Detectives'. One was 'Sign Off' and the other shall remain nameless.

'Sign Off' is a model of how this genre should be done. The heroine is a TV reporter who, following a messy divorce, has found herself exiled to a small station in Wisconsin. There, she ends up on the consumer affairs desk. A young girl, who clearly doesn't understand that when TV stations say they will solve your problems, they don't exactly mean that, asks her to clear her father of murder. The heroine finds herself increasingly drawn into the investigation. She is, in part, morally blackmailed by the kid, partly she hopes that there is a story in it, and partly she is prodded by the handsome sports reporter. In the end, she solves the murder, escapes the killer in the damsel-in-peril scene that is compulsory in these stories and realises that the handsome sports reporter could be more than just a colleague. Along the way, she learns a lot about small town life in Wisconsin and work in one of the old-school local TV studios that account for a significant proportion of US broadcasting. Whilst the story is hardly a work of literary genius, it amuses and entertains and gives the reader an insight into a slice of life that is alien to most of us. The main characters are well rounded (though I found some of the many possible suspects blurred into one another) and you soon come to care for the heroine and her friends. It's lively, well written and occasionally funny. It's exactly what you want if this kind of whodunnit appeals to you.

It came as no surprise to read in the author's biography that the writer has spent more than 20 years as an editor at the Washington Post. Her acknowledgements also demonstrate that she did solid research into the workings of TV stations – research which makes the book ring true.

The second book was one of a series. The author is, again, an experienced writer, although most of her work has been romance stories. The heroine this time is a tour guide, whose clients are being murdered. Although her policeman boyfriend is anxious that she does not involve herself, her boss asks her to look into what is happening. Apparently, she has a reputation for finding herself in more than her share of damsel-in-peril situations. I know this, because every couple of pages there is some reference to how she has got in trouble in an earlier adventure. "I have a knack for getting hit in the head, crapped on by a goose, and whacked with a wooden penis," she confides at one point. And, of course, she has a knack for getting involved in murder. If you're the chief character in a series of murder mysteries you will find people dropping dead around you quite often. It's a convention and the best way for authors to deal with it is to just accept that it happens and move on. But not here. Oh no! In between being told about her previous perils we are, over and over again, informed that she just can't understand why people keep dying all round her. This charming old-fashioned convention, which could so easily have passed without notice, becomes something of an issue when even the heroine is pointing out how difficult it is to suspend her disbelief.

The continual dwelling on incident in her life seems to be designed to make up for the absence of any depth in her personality. Eccentric parents, a policeman boyfriend, and the tendency to stumble into the middle of crime scenes does not add up to a personality. The contrast with 'Sign Off' is overwhelming. I don't believe in this character; I don't believe in her situation; and, most importantly, I really don't care. In fact, I didn't care so much that I never bothered to finish the book. That's why I'm not naming it. You really can't give a bad review to a book you haven't even finished. But it is worth commenting on. There is a widespread feeling that crime novels are not "proper novels" and that anyone can churn out a detective story. It's just not true. Books like 'Sign Off' have to be crafted just as carefully as any other sort of novel and, in the end, they hold your interest because of the characterisation, the details of the background and the quality of the writing. You only have to look at some of the alternatives out there to realise how easily it can all go wrong.

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