Friday, April 15, 2011

Review: "The Chocolate Cupid Killings" (2010)

"One of the scariest things I've heard about Belcher -- and I haven't had any connection with the case, of course -- is that he's quite cold-blooded. If he offed someone in the course of his job with the mob, he did it so coolly that the FBI hasn't been able to prove anything. Apparently the only person he ever hit in anger was his wife."

"I don't find that reassuring."

Synopsis: Ten Huis Chocolade, in Warner's Point, MI, once again finds itself the nexus of murder, while Lee's husband starts acting strangely and the town is overrun by possible Goodfellas.

Grade: B-

There comes a time in every relationship where you have to admit to yourself that either you trust your partner unconditionally, or when they tell you they can't tell you where they're going or who they're meeting with, you take it on faith that they're not fucking around on you.

Especially if one of you has a nasty habit of finding dead bodies.

Lee Woodyard has one of those relationships with her husband Joe, Warner Pier's part-time city attorney-cum-boat restorer. Kinda. So when he's meeting with strange men instead of showing up to family dinners, Lee throws only very small tantrums. Part of this is that they've been at this relationship for what, nine books now, and as mentioned, Lee keeps finding bodies, which is what keeps the books selling. But more than that, Lee's a pragmatist: she'd throw a rock through the front window but it's winter in Michigan and all the rocks are covered in snow.

I like that kind of thinking. I like Lee, in fact.

She's a likeable protagonist: smart and kind but a little bit tongue-tied, but not meek enough to let people walk all over her. And usually, I like Joe, too. However, in this book, his I'd Tell You But Then, You Know schtick soon wears thin and I am left solidly in Lee's camp, looking for the last unfrozen rock by the shores of Lake Michigan.

(Btw, as an aside: I love the setting in these books. I love how washed in Michigan it is.)

Okay, so Cupid Killings: a mysterious man comes into Ten Huis and asks manager/owner/accountant Lee if she's seen the woman in the picture. The photo he shoves across the glass looks remarkably like Pamela, a recent Ten Huis hire who's on the run from her abusive husband. The Ten Huis women spring into action, concealing Pamela and dispatching the mysterious man with haste (and a gift-wrapped box of chocolate cupids) but lo! The mysterious man is a P.I. from Georgia and he has the unmitigated gall to get himself killed behind the Ten Huis dumpster while Lee is very much not throwing rocks at Joe for being mysterious about his meetings.

Cue the dueling news stories about a recently paroled mobster in search of the wife he pummeled pre-jailing, and the possible indictment with prejudice of a hometown financial big-wig and away we go. Murder! Mysterious meetings! The trial of marriage! The sting of corporate espionage on a large and small scale! And the fact that every town in Michigan has either a Lake Shore or a Lakeshore Drive!

Here's the problem: Joe.

Joe, who has, for eight books now, been a dashing, charismatic, somewhat difficult but entirely appropriate foil/partner for Lee and her dead-body-findin' ways, turns into a heel in this book. Like, it's one thing to say "Oh, I wish I could tell you but I still love you and I respect that you're not asking" and it's quite another to get flinty-eyed and stomp up the stairs to bed.

Add to that two things:

1. It was pretty obvious who did what at about the 125-page mark.

2. The ending was a trainwreck.

But here are two other things:

1. Even with the both of the above (and I thought it was pretty smart that one of the EMTs at the end even comments, "Hey, that was a pretty stupid decision y'all made back there.") Carl's writing is technically flawless. It just is. It's not like, sentencecraft of the sublime or miraculous metaphors, but it doesn't have to be. It's like the coffee you find at 7-Eleven at ten o'clock on a Tuesday night: sure, it's been cooking all day and a fancy latte might taste better, but that coffee is there to Do Its Job. It will caffeinate you without a big fuss. And that type of writing is deceptively hard to make look easy.

2. Oh setting and characterization how you curl the wee toes of my cold, black book-reviewer's heart!

I have been visiting Warner's Pier for nine books now and I can say that as soon as the tenth book (WITH PIRATES OMG WHEEEBBQ) I will be snapping it up. I like the politics. I like the place. I like the style. I like the architecture. I like the comfort. I could move there and give old whatnot who spies on everyone at the Superette a run for his money, is what I'm saying.

In short, despite the bad decision-making exhibited by our heroes during the ending (and hello, who among us has not made our share of bad decisions?) and despite Joe being a terrible person who possibly should have been pelted by snow-covered rocks, it was a solid and enjoyable entry in the series.

After all, the path of true love is strewn, it seems, with dead bodies.

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