Monday, November 06, 2006

"Circle of the Dead"

I was initially attracted to this David Lawrence thriller because of its location on a shelf labeled "Tough Girls" in my local mystery bookstore (which is good enough to merit its own entry; more on that later). The plot centers around an execution style-killing, and slowly pushes our heroine deeper into the underworld as she unravels the mystery.

Mainly, though, I was interested in the protagonist.

The description on the back introduces us to Detective Stella Mooney, who is haunted by nightmares and who has a fondness for too much vodka. Sounds like my kind of gal.

Then I found out what the nightmares were about (dead babies) and had one of those strange moments of dissonance in which I stop believing in the protagonist as a female, and become hyper-aware that she was written by a man. Mooney’s nightmares – and this won’t spoil the plot -- are caused by a traumatic incident in which she witnessed the death of two children and was so freaked out that she miscarried her own baby (it was a girl). She dreams about it every night at 3 a.m. and wakes up in a cold sweat. I found this underestimated women’s resilience somewhat. Undoubtedly such an experience *is* traumatic, but I thought this was a bit exaggerated, and somewhat undermined the strength of this character. I mean, she's seen everything in her time, and this is what does it to her? How does this naturalize the notion of woman's ultimate function as mother above all else?

Despite that minor quibble, I liked Stella in well enough general. I liked her secretiveness, her inability to commit, and her devotion to her job. All very spinsterly attributes.

I also like the other female characters in the book, particularly Zuhra, a Bosnian refugee, who defines resilience. She is as much a hero as Stella, in every sense, and it was her story that kept me reading to the end. In the end, her subplot becomes the plot, and it is ultimately a gripping one.

Although initially tempted to dismiss the book – it’s first few chapters are meandering and muddy and contrived – by the time Zuhra makes her appearance, it feels relevant and interesting, and though I never really entirely warmed to Stella Mooney, in a sense that’s precisely where her appeal lies: in the great detective tradition, she is prickly, and tough, and hard to get to know. I liked that she is emotionally isolated and deeply flawed – especially in her refusal to face facts in her personal life – and I would like to see if she continues to refute feminine stereotypes in this manner, or just continues whining about her dead baby (how like a girl). At this point, she could go either way. The end of the book seems to be laying the ground for a second book in what seems a promising series; I'd like to see which path she takes.


Colin Greenland said...

I've just finished the book (called The Dead Sit Round in a Ring over here), and agree with you heartily, Ms Aunt, except about Stella's dead baby. Not sure about that. But I was particularly keen on Zuhra too, and was aghast not to be told what happened to her afterwards.

I've already heard Nothing Like the Night on disc, and probably the information was on there, but it meant nothing to me, so I didn't notice. I'd love to know if you read it, or either of the next two, and how they strike you. We share a lot of tastes, I notice: the amazing Pan's Labyrinth for one; the admirable Kinsey Milhone for another. I've read all her adventures and shall follow her to the end, though I'd have to say she's at her best in the earlier ones.

Spinster Aunt said...

Hello Colin,
I'm not sure how long ago you posted this, so maybe you won't read this reply. I didn't read Nothing Like the Night -- I just haven't had the time -- but I hope to. And I've got to get back to Kinsey Milhone, too. I just finished a DL Sayers book that I'll blog about soon (I hope). Thanks for your comment. I'm going to look at some of your books now.
P.S. So glad you liked Pan's Labyrinth too!