Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Is This the Dumbest Fun You Can Have Between Two Covers?

Review, Kate White, So Pretty It Hurts: A Bailey Weggins Mystery

I ought to hate this book. It almost reads like a ritualistic litany of everything standard writing texts and experienced novelists forbid. Kate White handles mystery like she took an Agatha Christie plot intact, laminated it in Sex and the City chic, and peddled it as her own. Yet I polished it off in two fun evenings, putting off bedtime to finish quickly. Maybe that proves that old ways are the best ways, if you just have fun.

Crime reporter Bailey Weggins writes for a glossy Manhattan tabloid. Invited to a house party in an upstate dacha, she dives into a seething cauldron of sex, jealousy, and immense wealth. At the center stands Devon Barr, a powerful but fragile supermodel. When Bailey finds Barr dead in her sleep, the police rush to close the book on an apparent heart attack. But Bailey knows murder when she sees it, and pursues the case, even as it closes on her like a bear trap.

My criticism starts with the crime itself. Devon Barr appears in scene very little, and her death merely kick-starts the plot. The characters act as ciphers to provoke each other, and interactions consist mainly of one-on-one conversations. Indeed, the characters aren’t characters so much as walking, talking plot devices; the crime is a Chinese puzzle box, not a meaningful investigation.

White’s day job is editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine, and we can tell, as she obsesses over beauty, fashion, and sex. Characters evaluate each other on looks, and ugly people don’t merit mention. Clothes serve as shorthand for wealth, status, and cachet. Narrator Bailey doesn’t blush to discuss how hot she is, and how many men want to sleep with her. A romantic subplot titillates without adding much to the story.

Plot elements feel transplanted from elsewhere. When the characters get snowed in with a body; when Bailey gets kidnapped in a gypsy cab; when she loses her job on a specious accusation; when she executes a daring escape from a burning building, I can only think I’ve read (or seen!) this before. White’s chapters end on such melodramatic cliffhangers that I almost hear the cheesy calliope music.

Characters name-drop several books and movies. The Shining, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Silence of the Lambs, Lifetime movies, and Miss Marple populate her dialogue. This lets White convey impressions by letting us do the work, but it also risks unfavorable comparisons: hey, this snowstorm isn’t nearly as scary as Stephen King’s! One character breathlessly exclaims, “Wow, that—that sounds like a damn movie!”

And how. Yet...

Yet I can’t help recalling this book with a smile. For all its dumb pretensions and feckless wanderings, White clearly had fun writing it. And if she doesn’t challenge us to new profundities and deep insights, she at least takes us out of our own mundane lives briefly for a guided tour of a New York as shady, dangerous, and exciting as downtown Beirut.

White’s first good choice was setting the story in the world of New York haute fashion. This area is not known for producing much eloquence; supermodels seldom double as novelists (White parodies this stereotype with biting dry wit). Others have skewered this industry from outside, but White tells the story from the viewpoint of people for whom fashion is neither myth nor mockery, but yet another thankless job.

She also has a strong heroine in Bailey Weggins. Not a fashionista herself, Bailey rose through the journalistic ranks by busting her chops upstate. This lets her straddle the fashion world’s boundaries, commenting knowledgeably while maintaining her outsider status. She’s at once one of “us” and one of “them.” Thus she can speak candidly, but not opaquely, to people famous for keeping their secrets.

And White tells a cracking good story. Her lickety-split pace, not mired in lengthy exposition or subtlety, probably guarantees her story limited shelf life; but it also lets us embrace her cat-and-mouse ethos. Bailey tells a grim story with understated humor, keeping us from bogging down in hip melancholy. Even her chapters, long by pop lit standards, sustain the momentum through intricate conspiracies.

Literary scholars like me famously love to make fun of popular fiction, then hide behind the excuse that “I love detective mysteries.” I’ve always made fun of that attitude. Yet Kate White’s unprepossessing sense of good, dumb fun has me wondering if I should maybe join the ranks. At the very least, it’ll give me an excuse to keep enjoying books like this one.

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