Thursday, June 16, 2011

The War Against Miss Winter

As any regular reader of this blog knows, I'm an avid reader of historical mysteries, perhaps the geekiest of genres (where's our Con??).

There are all kinds. The hard-boiled works of James Ellroy and Megan Abbott which usually aren't referred to as "historical mysteries" but are. The excellent, melancholic Maisie Dobbs books by Jacqueline Winspear, all about the repercussions of the First World War on both the living and the dead. And, the insanely popular vogue for mysteries set in New York at the turn of the last century, likely inspired by the success of (the over-rated) Alienist in the '90s.

Historical mysteries are difficult to write, as there are so many different elements. Is the mystery any good? Is the book well researched and accurate, does it wear its period lightly, or is the author subjecting you to gigantic info dumps. How about all the usual novelistic elements, such as style and character? I've read very, very few that manage to be effective at all three of the above aspects of historical mystery-making. Most often, as in Caleb Carr's two mysteries, and in Victoria Thompson's Gaslight series, it's the mystery that suffers most. And in Carr's books, his characterizations are laughably simple-minded. The historical aspects are clearly the draw, so they get the most attention.

Which brings me to The War Against Miss Winter, a mystery set in the New York City theater world in the months following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It comes close to succeeding on all fronts, but falls a little short. The story is told by struggling actress, Rosie Winter, who has been supplementing her income (as so many of us must) by working as a file clerk for a private detective. When her employer is offed, Rosie is drawn into the mystery surrounding his family and a strange, reclusive playwright (no, not me). What's so interesting about this book is that the elements that are so often the weakest, are truly impressive. Her mystery is terrific. A true twisty, Christie-style stumper that plays fair with the readers. That is rare beyond rare. Also, first time novelist Kathryn Miller Haines is a playwright and actor, so her understanding of how the nuts and bolts of how theater works is better than in the average novelist.

Now for the not so great parts. In some ways, I am likely Haines biggest nightmare as a reader. Haines hails from Texas and lives in Pennsylvania. As far as I can tell, she has never lived in New York, and it shows. She also uses a 1940s style slang in a way that occasionally made me cringe. There was too much of it, and it felt a little forced. I grew up around people much older than me who had spent their whole lives on the island of Manhattan and the way people spoke, and the way the city was portrayed was off. The phrase "IRT" was never once mentioned, though that was the subway line Rosie lives on, and she talks about taking the subway lots. The theater Rosie winds up working for is clearly modeled after The Group Theater, but she places it on 14th Street, which just felt - wrong. Her description of the lobby of The Waldorf-Astoria made no sense if you've spent any actual time in the lobby. The city just never came alive as it does in Thompson's Gaslight series, for example, or the way Los Angeles in the 40s and 50s does in Ellroy's books.

Kathryn Miller Haines has three subsequent entries in her Rosie Winter series, and I'll likely try at least one more. Though the city isn't very compellingly drawn, and a couple of inexcusable anachronisms jumped out at me, the ability to write a complicated mystery is rare indeed.


Mimi said...

Really? The geekiest of genres? I am a fan, and I had no idea. Whooot.

Caviglia said...

Haha. It was a little bit of a joke.

I like pointing out that SciFi and comics people wear their nerdiness on their sleeves when there are Cons with, like, hundreds of thousands of people in seemingly every city around the globe and movies and TV shows by the dozen that are about as mainstream as you can get. Mysteries: not so much.

Danny Bowes said...

It's a shame, too, because the cosplay would be awesome.