Friday, November 18, 2016

FFB: A Country Kind of Death - Mary McMullen

THE STORY: Frustrated Connecticut writer Philip Keane wants peace and quiet so he can finish his latest novel. But his sister-in-law comes for a visit, followed only hours later by an unannounced visit from his brother. The house becomes nothing but distractions for him. But dealing with unwanted house guests is nothing compared to what is on the horizon. His two youngest daughters emulate their father by writing stories based on their own limited life experience. The seven year old writes a story that is clearly a fictionalized account of a heated argument she overheard in the backyard hinting at a murder threat. Her 11 year-old sister is alarmed and thinks she ought to tell their father. But the seven year old clams up for fear of implicating a 19 year boy she likes. When the 19 year old’s mother is found drowned in her goldfish pond the two girls fear for their lives. Will Philip Keane ever get his novel finished now?

THE CHARACTERS: The story may sound gripping from that summary above, but it's all handled sloppily. The main problem is that McMullen litters the story with a large cast of supporting characters and seems more interested in their shenanigans, almost all of which are related to overactive libidos. Sadly, nearly the entire cast is utterly unlikeable. With the exception of the two little girls, the most interesting characters, no one held my interest. I cared not one iota for what they wanted nor why they were in the book.

And why was everyone a writer? Philip Keane writes mystery novels, his brother Patrick is a playwright of “domestic comedies”, the next door neighbor is a Pulitzer prizewinner (!), and his nympho of a wife is attempting to write her husband's biography which only inflames his already ugly temperament. There was an intrusive subplot about Fay and Angus (the husband and wife writers) which amounted to Fay hiding her manuscript in the neighbor’s studio and Angus bursting in every ten pages or so, finding a few pages here and there and destroying them. When Fay isn't hiding her manuscript she's pursuing every available man she can fling a sexual innuendo at.

For some reason no one locks their doors in this Connecticut town and everyone can enter the Keane house at all hours as if it were a frenetic French hotel with doors flying open and shut like those in a Feydeau farce. It was nonsensical.

The story should have been about Kit and Donna who in remaining silent about what they know are largely responsible for covering up the murder of the shrewish Mrs. Mint whose death all the adults want to write off as an accident. But over 80% of the book is devoted to all the subplots and non sequitur interior character monologues of uninteresting adults and whiny teenagers. There is no mystery here at all, by the way. And what little suspense we get is undermined by the garbage subplots of Fay and Angus, and the adult women (and one teenage girl) drooling over the Adonis of the piece -- Patrick Keane, the playwright brother.

INNOVATIONS: None. This novel is a mess. It purports to be a crime novel and it isn’t. It succeeds only as a meager satire of 1970s middle class white suburbia. That McMullen won an Edgar for her debut novel published more than twenty years prior to this astonishes me. What happened? There is nothing of a skilled mystery writer on display here at all. There is no detection, little suspense and few thrills. But there's more than enough repellent behavior and dreary depictions of suburban malaise. Even the finale –- an excessively violent and melodramatic basket of clichés -– fails when the so-called villain of the novel (no surprise as to the identity, BTW) is presented as a certified madman, utterly contrary to the way he was portrayed in the first two thirds of the book. It’s a cheap and inauthentic way to attempt to legitimize calling the book a mystery novel.

EASY TO FIND? Do you really want to track this one down? Yes, there are plenty of copies of out there. Understandably so. I imagine most readers couldn’t wait to rid their house of this sad excuse of a crime novel. My copy cost $2 and I’ll be adding it to our weekly bag of thrift store donations. Unless one of you wants it. I’ll gladly send it to you. For free.

This is the first of three 1975 Books I read for the Crimes of the Century meme at the Past Offences blog. The other two books proved to be vast improvements over this one as well as being more representative of 1970s culture and current events – one is a satire on the sexual revolution in the US and the other touches on apartheid and South Africa’s troubles, and both are genuine detective novels.

12 comments:

  1. She had a tremendous time lag between first and second novels, so something happened in the interim. The first one definitely had a stronger focus on the actual crime element and I recommend it. (see blog)

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    1. I didn't bother to look at her chronological bibliography. This is her third work of fiction, and her second crime novel published in the 1970s. I guess she was raising her family between 1952 and 1974. I read your review of STRANGLE HOLD when you first posted it, but the book didn't interest me because I'm not a fan of murder mysteries set in the business world.

      This is probably meant to be some sort of "exposé" of life in suburban Connecticut where I think she was living at the time. Compare her work with her sister Ursula Curtiss and Ursula wins the prize for being a better plotter and better storyteller. McMullen should've stuck to mainstream fiction. Based on this book which succeeds as a minor satire of the 1970s sexual free-for-all, if she had delved deeper into that side of her adult characters --who she clearly preferred over the little girls-- she might've turned into someone like Judith Rossner.

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    2. Even in the first one a lot of the appeal is in the workplace aspect, no question.

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  2. Not for me, John. You know how I feel about things - life's too short to read a bad book, except if it's by an author you revere (as I do Rex Stout - check my entry for today). I always wonder about Edgar Award winners - so many authors have won for books which I would never even bother to pick up at the library, much less read. I once wrote to the Edgars to inquire why this should be so. I think I was being facetious. But I got a very nice letter back. I think it's that they like to be as esoteric and enigmatic as possible about their choices.

    Don't you hate it when there's nobody to like in a book? Well, except for the two little girls, in this instance. In a mystery, there has to be someone likable, most hopefully someone in charge.

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    1. Her first book, the award winner, is a legitimate detective novel well plotted and written according to pretty much anyone who's raed it. Curt Evans says so and I trust him. Not my bag, though. The story is based on her life as a graphic designer in an advertising firm, a business she worked in for over twenty years. As I said above, just not a fan of mysteries set in the business world.

      There was no one in charge that I can remember, not even police. I only read it three days ago. Not a good sign when nothing lingered in my mind. Best forgotten, this one.

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  3. This almost sounds like a Tom Sharpe novel -- by which I mean offensive, nowehre near as funnny as it thinks, and probaly the kind of thing that should never have seen the light of day in the first place. I mean, this was back in the day when they actually killed trees to put this stuff out...and pre-vanity publishing, too! What the hell happened?!

    Also, am I the only one who finds the shrinking of the "o" on the cover presented above somewhat...unfortunate?

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    1. Ha ha! Now I'm laughing even harder...oops.

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    2. I really hate that design. All her books reprinted in the 80s by this publisher have a similar look with the weird paper cutouts making up the illustration, a photographed collage of sorts it looks like. If anything that little letter O ought to be inserted into the word OF and not COUNTRY. Just poor design overall.

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  4. You have me laughing here, John. I started your review liking the premise and thinking I might want to track down a copy. Now all I can do is laugh. Thanks for an entertaining pan!

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    1. I started out liking it, too! But Fay entered the story and the whole thing went to Hell in a portable typewriter case.

      You should have seen the first draft before I hit the "Publish" button. I toned it down considerably. HA!

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  5. Message received, I am staying well away - thanks John :)

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  6. Well I really enjoyed your critique, while naturally not wanting to read the book. I know I read something by her in the past, but no recollection either of what it was or what I thought of it. Must go and look it up.

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