Author: Bill Pronzini Title: Son of Gun in Cheek: An Affectionate Guide to More of the “Worst” in Mystery Fiction
A humorous and good-natured study of alternative crime fiction, the Edgar Award-nominated Gun in Cheek celebrated the neglected classics of substandard mystery writing. After years of additional research into comically awful literature, author Bill Pronzini returns with Son of Gun in Cheek, a compendium of even more twisted treasures for connoisseurs of hideous prose. Pronzini’s lively commentary offers background on each of the stories he cites, providing an informative survey of the genre and its writers, crowned with hilarious excerpts. His lighthearted look at the best of the worst in crime fiction will amuse not only mystery buffs but also anyone with a taste for ham-handed drama.
I had read about one-third of this book when I went and bought Gun in Cheek, the author’s first book about the worst mystery fiction, as audiobook. That way I could listen to it during all those times when I needed my hands and/or eyes for something else and couldn’t read my copy of Son of Gun in Cheek. That already tells you how much I enjoyed this. I already talked about my love of bad books and pulp fiction of any kind is obviously a treasure trove of this; after all many authors wrote dozens of books per year, that doesn’t leave much time for elaborate plotting (or much revision).
Still, not everybody who writes a lot writes truly bad. Many of them will just have plots that are somewhat ridiculous with some odd phrasing thrown in. Chances are that if you pick up any pulp fiction mystery to read it you will be bored most of the time and smile slightly in some places. Or at best find a few truly hilarious phrases in an otherwise meh book.
And this is where Bill Pronzini comes in. Because he has done all that work for us and now writes about all the mystery plots that aren’t just unrealistic but defy logic and common sense in every possible way (and often also break the scientist), villainous schemes that only work because the victim a) has an incredibly obscure habit and b) is extremely stupid and “heroes” who can’t interpret the obvious clue until it is (almost) too late to save the damsel in distress (who is of course required in all good bad mysteries). And if the stories aren’t as noteworthy but contain phrases like “she apostrophized”, “corpses were falling around us like pulpy persimmons from the tree” or describe a woman’s breast as having “nipples like split infinitives” he’ll write about that.
If you want to look for faults you could argue that this leads to a slight jumble: you get chapters that focus on specific authors, chapters that summarize the plot of a few novels in great detail, chapters that summarize the plot of several novels in a few paragraphs each, chapters that consist mostly of quotes, and chapters that have a bit of everything. But then it’s not possible to treat every book the same if different things stand out every time (and Pronzini says as much in the introduction and adds that the chaoticness should be considered an homage to the books he’s writing about since those were also very chaotic).
I don’t mind the lack of cohesion that much. Much more important is that Pronzini is never needlessly cruel or mean. Sure, he makes fun of the stories but he never suggests that a pulp fiction author should be held to the same standards as a writer who takes one or two years to finish one novel. He also calls out sexism, racism, and homophobia and does so quite harshly (which honestly surprised me, since this is a re-release of a book written in the 1980s and I had not expected that level of awareness at that time).
In case you are still not convinced: I am currently considering getting Six Gun in Cheek, which does the same for Western pulp fiction despite the fact that my knowledge of Western begins and ends with The Magnificent Seven. I’m sure that wouldn’t stop me from finding this just as hilarious.
1. & 2. Ben Aaronovitch – Lies Sleeping & The October Man
The next two books in the Peter Grant Series, or well one with Peter and one set in the same universe but with a different main character: Tobias Winter, Peter’s German equivalent. I admit that even though I really want to know how the main story continues I’m also really looking forward to meeting Tobias,
3. Robert Galbraith – Lethal White
After the ending of book three? I NEED THAT NOW 😉
4. Curtis Craddock – An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors #2
It doesn’t have a title, yet…or even a vague release date. But I am willing to slay several lions to get it.
(I would just distract them with A BOX!)
5. KJ Charles – Last Couple in Hell
The second book in her Green Man Series. I loved book one (and am especially excited because LCIH will feature an f/f couple)
6. Carola Dunn – The Corpse at the Crystal Palace
You might have noticed my love for the Lady Daisy mysteries. And the blurb sounds very promising
7. Carol Berg – ???
I have no idea what she is currently writing, if she is writing at all and when it will come out. I do know that I will read it
8. George R. R. Martin – Winds of Winter
It has to come out one day, right?
9. The Good Omens TV-Show
That’s not a book, you say? Well, don’t tell anyone 😉
10. The Hath No Fury-Anthology
Yes, this is partly because it will have a Carol Berg-story. But a fantasy anthology focussing on female characters sounds awesome in general.
I shortly considered talking about Epic Fantasy’s love for the words Sword, King, Throne, Queen and so on but then I realized there is a genre I enjoy and that has a tendency for a certain something in the title. And by that, I mean Cozy Mysteries and groanworthy puns.
So please enjoy this collection of titles I found in less than 20 minutes on cozy-mystery.com and appreciate that it doesn’t consist solely of needlework-themed mysteries with dye/die-puns which would have been entirely possible because that’s a very popular pun.
Author: Josh Lanyon Title: Murder Takes the High Road
Librarian Carter Matheson is determined to enjoy himself on a Scottish bus tour for fans of mystery author Dame Vanessa Rayburn. Sure, his ex, Trevor, will also be on the trip with his new boyfriend, leaving Carter to share a room with a stranger, but he can’t pass up a chance to meet his favorite author.
Carter’s roommate turns out to be John Knight, a figure as mysterious as any character from Vanessa’s books. His strange nighttime wanderings make Carter suspicious. When a fellow traveler’s death sparks rumors of foul play, Carter is left wondering if there’s anyone on the tour he can trust.
Drawn into the intrigue, Carter searches for answers, trying to fend off his growing attraction toward John. But as unexplained tragedies continue, the whole tour must face the fact that there may be a murderer in their midst—but who?
I hadn’t been overwhelmed by the last few Lanyon-books I picked up and so I wasn’t planning on reading this one. But the plot ‘holiday trip with mysterious events and then a sudden death’ just sounded too good to pass. And I was not disappointed. Lanyon gives this frequently used set-up an unexpected twist that fits the story perfectly. (Die-hard mystery traditionalists might complain about it but I enjoyed it a lot).
The romance was very low-key. Carter and John meet, are attracted to each other, have sex and agree to stay in touch and take things further but things are not overly emotional. Which is understandable considering the story takes place over the course of one or two weeks and things are quite busy. Still, it’s definitely more a happy-for-now than a happily-ever-after ending. In fact, it felt more like the beginning of a traditional cozy mystery series (where the designated couple meets in book one, there is an obvious attraction but it takes a few more books until they really get together), than of a typical romance series e.g. Lanyon’s Adrien English books or KJ Charles’ Magpie Lord (where the couple has already taken huge steps towards a proper relationship in book one). I don’t mind this since I enjoy both but if you pick this book up for the romance you will probably be disappointed.
What did bother me was the bitchy-ex trope that takes up quite a lot of space. Carter had originally planned to take the trip with his then-boyfriend but then the boyfriend left him for another guy so now all three of them are taking the tour. Both the ex and his new boyfriend spent a lot of time being horrible to Carter and it’s exhausting. Admittedly, it does help muddling the waters because it means Carter can’t be sure if some of the strange occurrences might be their fault. It’s also part of Carter’s character-growth that he realises how little he and Trevor fitted together and it’s much more than ‘well he couldn’t see how awesome I was, so obviously he was horrible’ but especially considering how little space the actual new relationship got, it’s disappointing to see how much time that sub-plot took.
I would still recommend this book but only to people who (also) enjoy classical mysteries and don’t mind having the typical tropes from those played with (and perhaps also lampshaded a bit), not to lovers of romantic suspense because there is not that much romance in it.
Title: A Fashionable Indulgence Author: KJ Charles Series: Society of Gentlemen
When he learns that he could be the heir to an unexpected fortune, Harry Vane rejects his past as a Radical fighting for government reform and sets about wooing his lovely cousin. But his heart is captured instead by the most beautiful, chic man he’s ever met: the dandy tasked with instructing him in the manners and style of the ton. Harry’s new station demands conformity—and yet the one thing he desires is a taste of the wrong pair of lips.
After witnessing firsthand the horrors of Waterloo, Julius Norreys sought refuge behind the luxurious facade of the upper crust. Now he concerns himself exclusively with the cut of his coat and the quality of his boots. And yet his protégé is so unblemished by cynicism that he inspires the first flare of genuine desire Julius has felt in years. He cannot protect Harry from the worst excesses of society. But together they can withstand the high price of passion.
I loved Harry’s story: at the start of the book he works in a bookstore and barely makes ends meet. He also has lived through times where things were even worse and he almost starved. Then he learns that he has a rich grandfather who needs an heir because his son (Harry’s uncle) and other grandson died in a fire.
But of course, this isn’t some fairy tale: Harry’s grandfather and father broke when his father married a Radical commoner and went on to fight for the rights of the working-classes with her, a cause he detests. And to get his inheritance Harry has to convince him that he agrees with him on this subject. Of course, he doesn’t: he knows that, contrary to what the upper classes believe, he wasn’t poor just because he didn’t work hard enough. But he has to sit through dinners with friends of his grandfather who believe exactly that and are very vocal about it.
As the reader, you want Harry to jump up and tell these assholes exactly where they can shove their opinions and there are enough books where something along those lines happens. But Harry does that only once, quite late in the book and quickly regrets it and tries to convince his grandfather that it was just a stupid drunken mistake. Because Harry knows exactly what will happen when he displeases his grandfather: he’ll be out on the streets again with no idea if he can afford his next meal and he does not want that again.
But this charade gets harder for him hold up, the longer it goes on. Because while Harry has some issues with the ways his parents fought for their ideals and with the life they dragged him into (a lot of it was spent on the run), he still shares their values and feels like he is betraying their memory by not standing up to his grandfather. And this struggle is so raw and real that it’s impossible not to feel for him.
Of course, there is also another issue Harry has: his grandfather wants him to marry his cousin, to make sure that his fortune stays with the right kind of people. Harry would prefer to lead a life as a confirmed bachelor. If you know what I mean.
Which brings us to the romance part of this story, which was…OK. Now don’t get me wrong: I liked Julius and there was nothing about the development of their relationship. that made me feel uncomfortable. Rather the opposite: I enjoyed that just like in other KJ Charles books there wasn’t one partner who was experienced in everything and one who needed to be taught everything. Their relationship was very balanced with each having some experiences and knowledge the other hadn’t.
In other words, I shouldn’t have any reason to complain and yet…I simply cared a lot about how Harry dealt with his conscience vs. his desire to not live in poverty again. That fact that he found a boyfriend while dealing with these issues was…nice but not the most important thing for me. And I can’t help feeling that in a romance I should care more about the romantic parts. On the other hand, I loved everything else about this book a lot so does it really matter?
I love fantasy, crime novels (especially mysteries) and romances but all of those have popular tropes that I can’t stand. So here are some and as a bonus some books from these genres that avoid (or subvert) the tropes.
1. The Noisy Mother (cozy mysteries)
The protagonist’s mother can’t stop sticking her nose in her child’s business. And to be clear: I’m not talking about calling them too often or occasionally appearing unannounced, I’m talking about pestering the child’s doctor to learn about their health, or opening every single conversation with questions about the kid’s love-life and (if it’s a daughter) when she finally intends to breed. That’s not adorable. That would make me require extensive therapy.
This doesn’t happen in:
Daisy and her mother have a complicated relationship and her mother isn’t even that likable (she is rather class-conscious and disapproves of Daisy’s marriage) but she never turns into a caricature.
2. Cold Openings (crime)
The classic crime novel opening has a person, usually a woman, running. While she is running she thinks about her family and then gets killed by a serial killer in more or less graphic detail. Sometimes the novel isn’t about a serial killer but e.g. a person from the character’s past coming after her because of a Dark Secret. In that case, her internal monologue just tells us enough to know that there is a Dark Secret but it could be anything from ‘When I was five I drowned my neighbour’s goldfish’ over ‘I sat in the car when my high as fuck college friend ran over somebody and didn’t stop’ to ‘We sacrificed the school bully to Satan’.
Variations of that are: she is already in the killer’s torture dungeon or she is doing something perfectly ordinary, talks perhaps about a bad feeling she has, hears a noise ‘and then everything went black’.
Here’s the thing: why should I care about a character I only met for perhaps 20 pages? I cannot remember an occasion where the cold opening told us anything plot-relevant. It just tells us that…there is a murder…in the murder mystery?
This doesn’t happen in:
Cold Openings are quite widespread in ‘serious’ crime novels (i.e. not cozy mysteries). The Cormoran Strike series isn’t one of them.
3. No Life Without Him/Her (romance)
Romances are about two* people meeting and falling in love. Yes, I know. But I get annoyed when one chapter ends with heroine makes plans to meet with her best friend and the following chapter starts with ‘Meeting her friend had been fun’, completely skips the whole thing and we’re back to the heroine interacting with the hero/thinking about him (the two heroines/heroes interacting). I’m not saying that the two halves of the couple should only meet three times over the course of the novel but it’s also an important part of someone’s characterisation to see how they act when with somebody else.
* Or more
This doesn’t happen in:
This is actually just a novella still manages to show how the protagonist has friends and family and yes she talks about her relationship with them but not exclusively.
4. The Bitchy Ex (romance)
Let’s face it: this is a big problem in m/m romance. One of the guys has an ex-wife who is an absolute harpy. When she finds out he is now with a man things get worse because she suddenly turns into the most conservative-evangelical Christian and screams how he’s going to hell. If there are children she obviously threatens to make sure he will never see them again. (And there are no other likable female characters in the book because ‘Women – eergh’). This is misogynistic bullshit.
Now that doesn’t mean that this never is an issue in m/f books. The ex of either of them can also make an appearance there and sabotage the relationship. Now I am aware that sometimes relationships end badly and people get hurt. But there’s a difference between that and ‘I want to make sure that my ex will never be happy again’.
This doesn’t happen in:
It is unfortunate that I can’t think of a counterexample with a non-horrible female ex because Simon and Maggie from All or Nothing both had a relationship with a guy. And Simon’s ex isn’t a great person but he isn’t some ‘You are not allowed to be happy without me’-caricature. He is somewhat ignorant about other people’s feeling but more in a clueless than a jerky way (and he gets better from what I remember).
5. People Can Have Only One Meaningful Relationship (romance)
I guess this is slightly related to the previous one. If one of the characters has had a previous long-term relationship, it had to have been horrible. Exceptions might be made if the previous partner is dead but even then, they will mention how dead partner was a good person but never made them feel like new person.
I know I am reading romance and it’s not very romantic if a character goes ‘I loved my ex more than anything and if they were still alive I would still be with them but if I marry you now I can really save on taxes’ but there is enough between those two extremes.
This doesn’t happen in:
Phoebe is a widow and it is made clear that her first marriage was also out of convenience than love but she cared about him and her feelings don’t suddenly disappear when she meets Nick.
6. The Chosen One (fantasy)
Now I should make it clear that I don’t hate all Chosen One narratives *pats her Harry Potter collection*. I do strongly dislike books where the chosen one is the hero because they are the chosen one but everybody else is more capable and do all the work while the chosen one stands around.
This doesn’t happen in:
Dust and Light
Song of the Beast
The Spirit Lens
Flesh and Spirit
Anything by Carol Berg. Her heroes are chosen ones in the sense that there is a reason that these things are happening to them and that reason is something they have no control over. But they still stand their ground. None of them are farm boys who need half of the first book to train. The characters have already achieved things before the book starts and they use the experience they got there to solve the problems in the book.
7. No, It Wasn’t Suicide (crime)
A person dies. It looks like suicide (or an accident). Everybody thinks it is suicide. Only Our All-Knowing Hero doubts it. It doesn’t matter that all he has is his gut-feeling, Our All-Knowing Hero is convinced that is was murder and refuses to obey any orders from his superiors about investigating that other obvious murder. Our All-Knowing Hero will shout, scream, stomp his foot and show all the restraint of a five-year-old in the sweet aisle of the supermarket.
Then it turns out that Our All-Knowing Hero was right all along. The dear reader is only mildly surprised because they were reading a murder-mystery after all. They are pretty fed up with Our All-Knowing Hero anyway because he acted like an absolute jerk and not even the knowledge that he was right makes him more likable.
This doesn’t happen in:
Here one of the protagonists thinks that there is more to some apparent accidents. His friend thinks he’s imagining things but is willing to look into it himself to give him some peace. (And then, surprisingly for a crime novel, it turns out there was something more to it…)
8. The Surprisingly Psychic Hero (historical novels)
The years is 1912. Our hero has an acquaintance who excitedly tells him about this unsinkable ship called ‘Titanic’. Our hero chuckles and says condescendingly “No ship is unsinkable”. Or it’s the 1920s and everybody is convinced that those Nazi guys over in Germany won’t be a big deal. Our hero knows better.
But in 90% of cases, it’s not convincing that our hero is so knowledgeable/cares about a subject so much. So all these things tell me is that the author knows that the Titanic sank which isn’t very impressive.
This doesn’t happen in:
A series set in the Weimar Republik and full of people who think the Nazis aren’t that big a threat. That includes the hero; there are no attempts to make him more likeable/brighter by constantly having him explain that the Nazis are bad and how this all will end badly because nobody believes him.
It’s also been made in a series with an awesome soundtrack which isn’t directly related to my point but I wanted to mention it anyway:
9. The Phrase “He didn’t yet know that he would never do X again” (everything really)
I have read this phrase more times than I can count. All it does is spoiling that this character is going to die a few chapters or pages before they actually do it.
This doesn’t happen in:
The phrase “He didn’t yet know he would never return to his flat again” appear in the first chapter and it’s no lie. The character never returns home. But it turns out to be for entirely different reasons than the reader thinks.
10. Look How Awesome And Different Everything Is (fantasy)
Don’t get me wrong: I love fantasy novels where the world isn’t just ‘vaguely Western European middle ages with magic’ and instead have a truly fantastical world. But sometimes authors get so lost in the details and throw everything at the reader: look this world has two moons! Look that strange ritual they are celebrating! Look at the weird animals! And nothing actually adds anything to the story. (Not that it needs to be plot-relevant if the world has two moons, but don’t pile everything up and then do absolutely nothing with it)
This doesn’t happen in:
The Gates of the World trilogy is set in a world similar to our early industrial age. Only it also has necromancy, talking dogs and some gods who are still quite present. But it never feels like the author is shouting ‘look how cool this is’. It’s just part of the world she created. Some things influence the plot more, some less but it all has a point.
Globe and Mail Aunt Mildred declared that no good could come of the Melbury family Christmas gatherings at their country residence Flaxmere. So when Sir Osmond Melbury, the family patriarch, is discovered – by a guest dressed as Santa Klaus – with a bullet in his head on Christmas Day, the festivities are plunged into chaos. Nearly every member of the party stands to reap some sort of benefit from Sir Osmond’s death, but Santa Klaus, the one person who seems to have every opportunity to fire the shot, has no apparent motive. Various members of the family have their private suspicions about the identity of the murderer, and the Chief Constable of Haulmshire, who begins his investigations by saying that he knows the family too well and that is his difficulty, wishes before long that he understood them better.
The house seemed full of lunatics who never gave away anything they knew until it was too late.
At first, I was worried I would be in for a similar reading experience as in The Moonstone, a story with multiple first-person narrators, most of which were annoying people, I couldn’t stand and hated having to spend time in their heads. The Santa Klaus Murder five first-person narrators, telling the first five chapters and some of those are extremely unlikeable. But then the murder happens and the narration is taken over by Colonel Halstock who investigates the crime. Halfway through we learn that as part of his investigation he asked five of the people who were at the house to write down how they experienced the days leading up to the murder and the first five chapters are those stories. It sure is convenient, that their stories match so perfectly; each person begins his narration just at the point the other ended. And it’s even more convenient that the very first person gives a short rundown of the backstory of everybody involved in the story so that the reader knows who has what motive to murder Sir Osmond. It is however somewhat inconvenient that towards the end of the story there are some major occurrences that happen while Halstock is not around, so we get two more chapters told by somebody else but this time no flimsy excuse for where they come from.
If done well, stories with multiple narrators can be great but this one isn’t done well. I might have even accepted the weird switching around with most chapters told by Halstock and a few by others if the ridiculous explanation that it’s part of the investigation hadn’t been. Of course, mysteries usually don’t portray a realistic picture of police work but this went too far for me.
The story under all this is decent but relies a lot on every single person not telling everything, because they thought it wasn’t important because they don’t want to get in trouble or because they don’t want to get somebody else in trouble. This is a staple of mysteries but unhelpful witnesses usually aren’t the only thing that’s hindering the investigation. Besides, it has a paint-by-numbers feel to it. Halstock finds something out, questions a witness about it, the witness gives new information, he goes to the next witness with that new information, they tell him something new…
In between all that, there are characters that go beyond being black or white cardboard-cutouts and the solution to the mystery is not easy to guess without being unfair. Perhaps the book also suffers from having a plot (horrible family patriarch gets murdered over Christmas) that reminds me a lot of Portrait of a Murderer and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas and in comparison with those it can only lose. I’m willing to give another book by the author a try but I’m not rushing to getting it.