Death in the stacks

I was at the library the other day, and I noticed that some thoughtful employee had posted a short list of mystery series recommendations. This person is clearly my long-lost book twin, because the sleuth categories included chefs, pet owners and librarians. (There was no category for gay sleuths, but I’ll let it slide.)

Being in a Dewey Decimal kind of place and riding a wave of library love, I opted for Charlaine Harris’s Last Scene Alive, starring small-town librarian Aurora Teagarden. While the book has a lot of promising elements – a generally anti-social heroine, the promise of a gossipy community setting, and the opportunity to see a librarian apply her considerable intellect and organizational skills to violent crime – they didn’t really come together for me.

Aurora is more passive-aggressive than anti-social. She has reasons to isolate herself, primarily a history of abandonment. Her father took off during her teens; her first boyfriend took off for fame and glory; her second impregnated someone else while dating Aurora; and her beloved husband recently kicked the bucket. But instead of a genuine appreciation of solitude and independence, Aurora’s really just waiting for the right man to reintroduce her to the land of the living.

To my way of thinking, she’s much less interesting than her genuinely iconoclastic peers in the mystery category. Nevada Barr’s Anna Pidgeon genuinely has little use for people, and while her job as a park ranger demands she interact with them and move through the mechanics of caring about them, it also provides the solitude she craves. Elizabeth Peters’s Amelia Peabody may have the trappings of domestic bliss, but her innate sense of her own superiority keeps her endearingly flinty, and it’s always clear that she’d rather be digging for tombs in the Valley of the Kings or thinning the criminal element than coddling her grandchildren. (Amelia is perfectly capable of loving someone without liking them very much.) Aurora’s protestations of self-contained contentment fall away effortlessly, even going so far as to rewrite her independence as self-absorption.

Her sleuthing skills are never in evidence, at least in Last Scene Alive. The mystery is left to solve itself, and it doesn’t have to work very hard. Aurora’s not egregiously inept like Diane Mott Davidson’s Goldy Schulz, nor is she as unbearably preachy. (It’s nice to see a character be able to attend church regularly and not immediately conflate promiscuity with murder. And at least Harris recognizes that gay people exist in the world.) But Aurora is incidental to what should be the driving events of the narrative.

The library setting is incidental as well. Aurora nags about overdue books, repairs some damaged holdings, and brags about the built-in bookcases in her extensively remodeled home, but the career she professes to love never matters much. With a few edits, she could just as easily be a florist or an accountant.

On a more peevish level, the character names are among the most ridiculous I’ve seen. If “Aurora Teagarden” had been the weirdest of them, it might have worked, but the book is packed with equally bizarre appellations. (“Robin Crusoe”? “Shelby Youngblood”?)

So I probably won’t be falling over myself to delve further into the corpses of Lawrenceton. But at least there are other alternatives on that handy list.

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