It was a dark and stormy night in a dressage barn in Massachusetts… HN bookworm Erin McCabe takes this equestrian murder-mystery for a spin and finds it annoyingly cliché.
Everyone Needs Solid Basics
While I much prefer reading a fascinating story, with a cast of strong characters, and beautiful writing, I have been known to say that I’ll read pretty much anything as long as it has a good story. You know, things like The DaVinci Code or Twilight or The Firm. Although, when I get to the end of a book like that, even though I’ve been thoroughly entertained, I feel sort of the same as when I used to watch Bad Girls Club on TV, like maybe a few of my brain cells committed suicide.
Still, I can admit that not everyone loves character-driven historical fiction (even though historical fiction increases the odds of finding at least a horse or two in the pages…) and if cross-training is good for horses, it must be good for readers too, right? With that in mind, I chose Anne Self’s novel Something Most Deadly, which is set in a fancy-pants dressage barn in Massachusetts, has a pretty high average rating (4.5 stars) on Amazon, and is the first of a trilogy (so there’s more for those that want it).
One of my favorite things about this novel was the setting. I mean, who doesn’t like a two-mile, oak-lined drive to a two-story circa-1800s barn (complete with indoor arena)? The main character, Jane, is likable, as are the cast of minor characters who make up her circle of fellow barn employees and friends. I also appreciated the way the novel kept me guessing about the killer’s identity until the last possible moment.
But maybe I’m pickier than I thought.
As I read the book (which does have moments of page-turning suspense), I found myself annoyed about issues that would have been fixed if the author worked with a good editor. The weird first chapter where Jane stalks her high school crush, Brian (are we supposed to think Jane is mentally unstable?). The strange rant about health care, which really has no place in this novel and just slows down the pacing. The need for more development of the love story between Jane and Brian. The stereotypical antagonists (not just the killer, but the wealthy barn owners and their Dressage-Queen wannabe daughter, Lucinda) who all verge on caricature with behavior that is never complex or surprising.
Even the story itself is familiar, despite the mystery/thriller trappings. It’s basically Cinderella in a dressage barn. I mean, there’s even a best friend/fairy godmother who gets Jane some fabulous new show clothes when hers are mysteriously shredded (I could use a fairy godmother like that) and the rich love interest (minus the shoe fetish). I could overlook a cliché story, just like I can overlook the boringness of bay Thoroughbreds, if we got something special and different along with the familiar– amazingly nuanced character development for example, or a new twist or some brilliant insight on the basic Cinderella plot. But we don’t. Even more annoyingly, Jane does a lot of things that are just plain illogical but are totally convenient for the plot. As in, Gosh, I know there’s a murderer sneaking around the barn who wants to kill me, but I’m going to hang out at the barn despite the hurricane warnings! It’s like the scene in a horror movie when the killer is after the main character and SHE RUNS UPSTAIRS! Why?! Why would anyone do that? But oh wait. Jane does exactly that too.
Now maybe I’m just an idiot, and don’t know all the expected tropes of the mysery/thriller genre. Maybe avid readers of the genre would be really disappointed if the heroine didn’t run upstairs with the murderer in hot pursuit. Maybe I ought to go easy on this novel, which falls clearly in the pure entertainment category. Maybe I’m being too much like George Morris, judging equitation in a jump-off round. But darn it if fundamentals aren’t important, no matter the pursuit. Anne Self tells a story and gets the job done, but if her base of support were a lot more solid, the result would be much more effective and enjoyable.
Now if I could just figure out the writer’s equivalent of working without stirrups….