Sunday, April 3, 2011

Review: "Murder Most Frothy" (2006)

Never one to miss the opportunity for a morbidly inappropriate thought, my mind began to replay the opening of Jaws -- the scene where a young girl is eaten alive during a midnight skinny dip -- and I began to worry whether there were any dangerous sharks in these waters. On the other hand, considering that I was probably chasing a professional hit man who had killed before, I realized that marine life probably should not have been my primary concern.

Synopsis: Manhattan coffeehouse manager Clare Cosi summers in the Hamptons and finds yet another dead body. While disapproving of her (ex-)mother-in-law's and her daughter's love lives, Cosi finds time to uncover an embezzling plot, break into people's houses and not solve the murder.

Grade: B-minus


In this fourth entry in Cleo Coyle's Coffeehouse Mystery series, protagonist Clare Cosi has been hired by an uber-wealthy restauranteur to be coffee somelier at his newly opened Hamptons eatery. During a July Fourth party, someone shoots one of the waiters, a guy who looks suspiciously near-identical to the restauranteur. Cosi investigates!

This is really a hard series to get a handle on. On the one hand, the writing is technically crisp and fluid, with lush and flourishing descriptions. On the other, Clare Cosi is driving me bugnuts.

Here's the problem: she doesn't come off as a very likeable person, and it's hard to tell whether Coyle is writing her that way on purpose. Clare meddles in police business and does so badly, like when she's standing over the dead body in the bathroom and yelling at everyone to stay back, because it's a crime scene, or when she's blithely justifying breaking & entering a random stranger's home, simply on the offchance that he's the guy she saw skulking round the edges of a party.

More than that, though, she very actively disapproves of her (adult) daughter, Joy, dating anyone at all (the scene where she very publicly up the phone number some guy gave Joy was excruciating to read) and has a tendency to do a lot of public haranguing. She also disapproves when her (ex-)mother-in-law has a romantic dinner with an old friend:

Of course, they'll share, I thought, heading back to the coffee bar to prepare their order. They're sitting so close to each other, they're practically sharing each other's laps!

Needless to say, I was less than thrilled to see Madame with a new man. Dr. MacTavish had been her steady beau for over a year, and I had become used to that...comfortable with that. She hadn't broken up with the good doctor, of that I was sure. Yet here she was tonight practically giddy over Edward.

Now, to be fair, Clare immediately follows that thought with the realization that Madame has a right to make her own choices, lead her own life, that it really was her business and no one else's....but then right after that Joy appears with the same questions and Clare turns the tables on her daughter, asking after her date and making it known that she disapproves of both relationships. Joy stalks out, aggravated.

It's a tightrope act, I think, managing Clare's attitude.

Madame takes her to task for it, Joy takes her to task for it, and even Clare's ex-husband takes her to task for her meddling, but there's no evidence that Clare takes any of their words seriously. She blithely continues to do exactly how she pleases, providing unasked-for and unwanted advice, snapping at people, etc etc.

BUT, it's nearly brilliant.

For Coyle to have created someone like Clare, and given her this serious character flaw AND have other characters go hey, that's a honking big character flaw you've got there...I really like that. It makes Clare complicated and difficult and very, very believable. If she was just sailing round being unpleasant to her family, that would be a problem. But she sails round being unpleasant to her family and they call her on it. I love that. She may not be changing any time soon, but neither is my mother, so you know, ten points, Cleo Coyle.

Now, there's a plot twist at the very very end (which I am not going to spoil) but I will simply say that I thought it was entirely out of character for the protagonist. I think it was meant to show that she had gained some empathy for Joy and Madame and calmed down a little bit, but instead I felt like it was just Clare wanting to have her coffee and drink it too. I was hoping [the plot twist] would happen, but when it did, I felt like something was seriously missing.

Recap: very, very nice writing style; fascinatingly horrible protagonist. The plot of this one I thought played a little too loosely (at some point, is someone going to lock Clare up for, oh, I don't know, BREAKING THE LAW? Also, her ex-husband only shows up when he has things to do to advance the plot, then he's never heard from again) than some of the other entries, but overall it makes for a decent beach read and a very telling look at Clare's interpersonal relationships.

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