Woods: Pretty witless. Photo courtesy Ballantine Books
Woods: Pretty witless. Photo courtesy Ballantine Books

It Makes Television Smart

So—okay, okay: I read Strange Bedfellows by Paula L. Woods, which, despite my boss's exhortations to review it so we can go local—we're all about local—turns out to be only marginally about Orange County, and by "marginally," I mean the murder victim in this lady-cop-investigating-a-murder novel is this big-time entrepreneur/Republican-party heavyweight from Irvine, but the guy sounds like any entrepreneur from any urban county, and OC Republican politics never turn up in the book, and there's no OC ambience, so I got the suspicion Woods doesn't know anything about Orange County, and in fact she titles the chapter in which the lady cop first drives from LA to OC "Behind the Orange Curtain," which should maybe tell you all need to know about the OCness of this book. So, the OC angle is dead in the water. Which leaves the genre-book angle. Which apparently we're all about too.

And which is more interesting. Because I don't read genre fiction—mysteries, fantasies, sci-fi, horror, romance, thrillers. Never could get into them. (Carrie was enough Stephen King to last a lifetime, I thought. And I remember reading Barbara Cartland once—one of those novels that was numbered on the spine—and thought it could have been written by a dreamy, not particularly sharp 11-year-old girl.) But even highbrow academics are elevating genre fiction to major status now, so maybe it's time to reconsider, right, try to see what people see in this stuff. So, fine: I read Strange Bedfellows, whose central character is Charlotte Justice, who's not just a lady cop, but a black lady cop for the LAPD, whose husband and baby daughter were brutally murdered more than a dozen years ago, which made her want to be a cop so she could investigate the crime and help other people so they won't have to suffer terrible suffering likes she does, but the crime was never adequately solved and it still bugs her, though she's trying to move on now, you know, got a new boyfriend who's not only a doctor, but also completely patient with her, not to mention a fine, fine specimen in bed, and she even goes to therapy because she's got this little anger problem, and she wants to deal with it so she can investigate the murder of the OC entrepreneur, which she just got a break on as the novel begins. So there are two mysteries here: Why were her husband and daughter killed, and who done the OC entrepreneur murder and why? And this is what we're reading for.

I must not have the mystery gene, but fuck if I cared about either of these things. I mean, I could care: I love Hitchcock, but Hitch cared as much about the characters that his mysteries were happening to as he did the mysteries. And I saw The Constant Gardener last night, and that's a mystery that cares about character. But Woods doesn't. Woods cares very much about verisimilitude when it comes to facts about financial audit procedures or "determining the effects of a gunshot wound on my pregnant victim"—there's a page and a half of acknowledgements thanking various experts for their help—and there's a good deal of research here about Black Nationalist movements in the U.S., Filipinos in the Central Valley, and the history of African-American doll making, but there's not a single moment when I believed in the verisimilitude of her characters, who are supposed to resemble human beings. And I guess I don't understand why a novelist would exert so much energy concocting such an elaborately complicated plot—and, Christ, is this one complicated—if she was going to make it all happen to empty vessels with names attached.

And the clichs! From the novel's title (other titles in Woods' Charlotte Justice series include Stormy Weather and Dirty Laundry) to the chapter headings ("Hell on Wheels," "Losing My Marbles") to the strings of predigested phraseology Woods calls sentences, the prose practically begs you to put it out of its misery. This kind of writing encourages beta-wave brain activity—it sort of gets to be like watching a TV rerun for the sixth time, only when you watch TV, there's at least stuff that's in color and moving fast, and there are pretty pictures, and there's always the chance that some actor will take a piece of utterly hackneyed dialogue and twist it into something unhackneyed. But all you've got in this novel to look at is black words strung out on a white page, line by line, and if those words don't do something to lively up themselves—by at least trying not to read like the other 1,200 novels in the mystery section at Borders—then reading gets to be a little like sitting vigil for the dead.

I read part of Strange Bedfellows at a library with my girl, who was reading War and Peace, and she kept interrupting me to whisper funny passages from Tolstoy about a commander who kept falling asleep during a counsel of war meeting. I was so jealous: there was more life and excitement in the description of this guy's nodding off than there was in Woods' entire labyrinthine plot, which ends, incidentally, with the revelation of—NO!—incest. Yes, incest. Of course. Whoops. Gave it away. The corrupt OC entrepreneur/Republican politico married his own daughter. There's your OC angle. Guess there's no reason to read it now. Did you a favor, believe me.



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