Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Miss Zukas and the Island Murders by Jo Dereske

I started reading this book over lunch on Monday. One of my coworkers noticed it and said, "Oh, I love that series. I can't wait for the next one." Of course, she's a librarian and the main character is too.

This is another used bookstore find; I thought it was the first in the series, but it's the second. It was published in 1993 and hasn't aged gracefully. So many plot elements could have been resolved in seconds by a quick online search, which makes the story seem contrived. It's not fair, but there you go.

My coworker mentioned to me that the main character, Helma Zukas, is "kind of a strange person." Strange must be librarian code for 'cold, robotic, remote, and unlikable.' At first I found Helma's quirks amusing, but as the story progressed, she became annoying. Her dislike of gossip and supposition just meant she was withholding information from the reader; her Aspie-like clumsiness in asking questions of other characters turned the dialogue unrealistic.

A lot of the book is unrealistic, for that matter. Helma receives an anonymous note reminding her of her promise to organize her 20-year high school reunion. Since it just so happens that she invested the money her class raised twenty years before, she now has lots and lots of cash to spend on the event. Her artist friend Ruth talks her into holding the reunion in their area, in Washington State, rather than at their actual high school in Michigan. Then Helma starts receiving other anonymous notes telling her to cancel the reunion. Ultimately the reunionists end up stranded on a fogbound island in a nearly-abandoned resort hotel, which is about as contrived as it can possibly get.

The mystery concerns a high school athlete's mysterious death twenty years before. It might have been interesting except that Helma's efforts to investigate are so clumsy and haphazard. She also makes terrible choices--so terrible that it's obvious she makes the choices so there will be a mystery. I find it hard to believe that someone so careful about details and propriety as Helma would fail to tell her policeman friend about the anonymous notes, especially once they became threatening; I was flabbergasted at her choice to call a (40-year-old) murder victim's parents before she called the police, until I realized the parents had a CLUE to impart. The writing is as awkward as Helma's social skills.

So no, I wasn't impressed with this mystery. I guessed the murderer ahead of time and I found the plot ultimately unsatisfying. Then again, it's Book Two in a series and Book Twos are almost always terrible. I won't give up on the series until I've tried Book One, but I'm not really very hopeful about it.

B&N link

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