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Friday, December 27, 2013

What the heck is author Sue Ann Jaffarian doing?

Since I stumbled on Sue Ann Jaffarian's mysteries, I've been scarfing up every one I can get my hands on. I think she has three series going, but I've only read the books in two of them:

--the "Granny Apple" series, about a woman (Emma Whitecastle) who can see and hear ghosts, including the ghost of one female ancestor (Granny Apples), who assists Emma in solving the problems that keep various ghosts from "crossing over";

--the Odelia Grey mysteries, about a plus-size paralegal who keeps finding herself in mystery-type situations, and can't seem to sit back and let other people handle them.

I read mysteries, when I do, more for the characters than the plot. I enjoy the main and subsidiary characters in both of these series, as well as Jaffarian's writing style. But I'm increasingly puzzled and somewhat irked by what Jaffarian is doing with the Odelia Grey stories.

Starting with perhaps the second or third book, characters keep confronting Odelia, more and more frequently and critically, with the fact that somehow, she just keeps stumbling on dead bodies! Her boyfriend, at one point, calls her a "corpse magnet." The obsession of almost every recurring character with this idea is playing a larger role with each successive book.

Of course, the reason Odelia keeps finding dead bodies is that she is -- ta-da! -- the protagonist in an amateur-detective mystery series. There's really no way around this (sorry) stumbling block. The more usual way of dealing with this element of the sub-genre is to ignore it -- which has never particularly troubled me as a reader. Am I unusual in this respect?

In Twice as Dead, the sixth book in the series, Odelia's friend Zee practically spills the beans, saying to Odelia, "It's just  . . . well, it's just that sometimes I wonder if somehow, some way, something unseen has chosen you to find these bodies." Yup, that's about right. If this had been the loudest note of the theme, an ironic wink toward the audience, and the characters had thereafter stopped harping on the subject, that would have worked. Or Jaffarian could have gone all the way into the meta level, and had Odelia regularly remonstrating with the author who was dropping unwelcome corpses in her path. Instead, we have poor Odelia constantly castigated by loved ones, friends and acquaintances for one of the foundational elements of her existence. I can only speak for myself, not having investigated how others react, but it distracts me and pulls me out of the story.

I've been wondering why Jaffarian takes this tack, and have come up with only one hypothesis. Perhaps Jaffarian finds the implausibility of the amateur-detective premise increasingly hard to swallow, and would rather be working on one of the other series -- but her agent or publisher insists that she keep cranking out Odelia Grey novels. The chorus of characters could be chanting Jaffarian's own complaint. Consciously or unconsciously, she could be declaring, or trying to ensure, that the assumptions underlying this series are untenable.

The "Granny Apple" series has no such difficulty. Naturally, a woman who can communicate with ghosts will be the one to receive their requests for assistance. The only improbability is the ability itself, and that's a familiar enough literary trope. Emma Whitecastle does have a fair number of scoffers and skeptics to deal with -- but unless they, in turn, start to drown out all other elements of the stories, Emma and Granny Apples should be able to keep solving mysteries for some time to come.

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