Monday, November 23, 2015

Who Is This Wendy Corsi Staub Person Anyway?

Wendy Corsi Staub, The Perfect Stranger and Nine Lives: A Lily Dale Mystery

Months ago, I reviewed Wendy Corsi Staub’s thriller Blood Red, an interesting premise that descended into wordy, over-written excess. I considered Staub an interesting writer who desperately needed an editor, and forgot her. Recently, however, I’ve discovered she’s actually a bestseller who writes with James Patterson-like bounty. So I agreed to reconsider Staub, and accepted two review novels. Now I’m even more confused. Let’s start with The Perfect Stranger.

I knew I was probably facing a difficult slog with this novel in Chapter One, one character took three pages to descend a staircase. Not because she was slow-moving, or descending from the highest tower, but because author Staub kept intruding long expository recollections between steps. That set the tone for this entire novel: it’s difficult to make even incremental progress, because even minor actions trigger rambling recollections.

In today’s networked age, local actions have potentially global circumstances. Meredith Heywood is the unofficial mother hen of a blogger’s circle, comprised entirely of breast cancer patients and survivors. These women have built a transnational friendship, without bothering to meet, or in some cases to learn one another’s real names. So Meredith’s death prompts their first-ever meeting, at her funeral. Too bad Meredith was actually murdered.

Wendy Corsi Staub
Staub crafts a massive ensemble for a modernized, tech-friendly rendition of a classic Agatha Christie locked-room mystery. At its heart, the women bloggers have deep connections which they’ve shared only online. They believe they know one another intensely, but with passing scenes, it transpires that each keeps deep secrets they don’t divulge digitally. One of these friends has mysterious motives. And now they’re all in danger.

But upon this intriguing premise, Staub has layered countless, disjointed internal monologues. Every character has a backstory, expounded interminably, whether they advance the story or not. The cast of thousands each get their own moments, to the detriment of pacing. Single conversations challenge readers’ patience, because between successive exchanges, Staub inserts Proustian recollections, sometimes pages long. The promised mystery never quite begins, because these recollections never quite cease.

I wanted to enjoy this book, but Staub wouldn’t let me. In today’s media-saturated age, authors realistically get about thirty pages to engage readers’ attention in books this long; but well past page 100, Staub still indulges in chugging expository scene-setting. The narrow thematic focus prevents this being a Jane Austen-ish character novel, but Staub’s interminable narration doesn’t let it be a mystery. I tried, but I just got bored.

Though different in premise and character, Perfect Stranger suffered the basic limitations that burdened Blood Red: too much writer, not enough story. Somebody once said, exceptionally prolific writers basically tell the same story time and again. Consider Stephen King. I basically wrote Staub off as a niche author, and prepared to forget her. But she surprised me, and made me reëxamine my prejudices, with her most recent character mystery, Nine Lives.

Newly widowed, unemployed, and evicted, Bella Jordan packs her son Max and whatever she can carry. She intends to crash with her mother-in-law; but car trouble and a needy stray cat divert her to Lily Dale, New York, home of America’s (very real-world) largest table-tapping community and séance resort. A town whose local innkeeper was recently murdered, giving Bella and Max a job, a house, and a mystery to solve.

Staub, who has already written a series of young-adult mysteries set in Lily Dale, now revisits the milieu for adults. Though pitched as a mystery novel, Staub actually offers a charming, low-key character drama with components, which become driving only relatively late. She provides readers with her familiar viewpoint character, the youngish wife with burdens, and basically permits Bella to interact with her interesting, tormented setting.

Bella adjusts, first grudgingly, then warmly, to her new surroundings. Max bonds with his cat, makes friends, and demonstrates budding psychic tendencies. Bella becomes an ardent innkeeper, befriending Lily Dale’s eccentric supernatural community and its resulting tourists. But she also glimpses increasing evidence that the prior innkeeper, whose death everyone calls accidental, actually met foul play. (Can psychics get ambushed?) She dons her Miss Marple had and investigates.

This hardcover original from a usually straight-to-paperback author is undoubtedly the best Staub I’ve read. It suffers her usual weakness, very long expository scenes, but never feels sluggish or overstuffed. She reveals backstory whenever it’s needed, keeps herself (relatively) concise, and simply tells an interesting story. Though this book works better as character drama than noir thriller, it’s nevertheless engaging reading. Now I understand why readers love Staub.

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