I’m not a huge fan of mystery novels. I like my fiction to be more character-centered. That’s why, when I sat down to review Dead Ex by Harley Jane Kozak, I was uncertain.
I’m not a huge fan of mystery novels. I like my fiction to be more character-centered. That’s why, when I sat down to review Dead Ex by Harley Jane Kozak, I was uncertain. It’s not that mystery novels can’t be good, it’s that they usually aren’t. Dead Ex is not an example of a good mystery novel.
Any novel that opens with “Men, in my experience, do not like being interrupted during sex by a ringing telephone” grabs my attention, a definite mark in favor of Kozak’s debut. But that opening line also happens to characterize the rest of the book very well–both the good and the bad of it.
Read through the sentence again, ignoring the titillating situational set up, and you run into what will become one of the greatest drawbacks throughout the story: construction.
Overall, Kozak’s writing just isn’t very fluent. Her sentences are too long and her language is too simplistic and loose. And while perhaps an editor should have had a nice sit-down with Kozak, it certainly isn’t typos that make the book clunky. It is at worst physically hard to read and, at best, comparable to what you expect from a high school writing project.
Grammatically, for the written word at least, sentences like “Cop jargon came naturally to Joey, as half of her family was in law enforcement and she herself had saved up for college by working in a morgue, but wouldn’t ‘He committed suicide’ have done the job as well?” are allowed. Unfortunately, being allowed within the rules of English does not make them good choices for popular fiction.
Maybe that is being too hard on the author, though. At times, I did find myself engaged, even willing to accept Kozak’s problematic writing style–if only to learn more about the characters. The story is interesting and engaging in the way that soap operas are, which considering that most of the characters are somehow involved in the soap industry, makes sense.
Kozak chose the perfect setting for the outrageous events that occur throughout the book. Where else but Hollywood could catty fashion incidents, designer hand bags, FBI agents, exploding buildings, and wacky, CATS-obsessed neighbors come together in a perfectly plausible storyline? The world she creates is full of insight and thought, probably due to her own experience living and working in it.
For the most part, believability isn’t one of Kozak’s problems. Her characters, though a little strange, are honest. Also, Kozak doesn’t waste her reader’s time (very much). For a mystery writer especially, she is quite economic and discerning in her placement of clues and other vital information. Only towards the end do the pieces begin to come together in that far-too-easy way, classic of the mystery genre.
On the other hand, information, as typical in mystery, is just laying around at everyone’s (except the cops’ of course) discretion. And while, as I mentioned, there isn’t a lot of excess getting in the way of the plot, the over-arching Greek theme could probably have been left out. Her effort to use the Greek epics to bring home the final moral of the story falls a bit flat. The protagonist’s romantic interest and their relationship is a bit underdeveloped. We are supposed to believe that there is marriage on the horizon for these two, when the depth of their relationship seems to go about as far as the time it takes them to get their clothes off. Nothing ever gets resolved at this plot point.
Finally, and this is something that seems unavoidable in pop-genre fiction, the story has its strong dose of the cliche. When super-macho, expertly procedural FBI man Simon says to our protagonist Wollie, “You don’t know what you’re doing. You may have the guts but you’ve got no training, experience, or even intelligence at the moment,” it’s enough to drop the book for fear the bad dialogue might be contagious. And though I won’t deny the guilty interest I have for the dramatic characters, I’m not sure that there is enough to recommend picking it back up. In other words, if you’re bored out of your mind at the airport, Greyhound station, train station or other transportation hub, and you see it lying around–pick it up. But otherwise, don’t bother. Dead Ex is mostly fluff and a lot of awkward sentences. Yeah, there are some interesting tidbits to be found within its pages, especially for fans of the genre. But in general, there are other authors out there that do it better.