Disclaimer: A review copy was provided by Penguin Random House First-to-Read program in exchange for an honest review. No other remuneration was received.
Book Title: KILLER LOOK
Author: Linda Fairstein
Series: Alexandra Cooper #18
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Author’s Website: http://www.lindafairstein.com/
Release Date: July 26, 2016
Main Characters: Alexandra/Mike
Find It: Amazon
Source: ARC provided by Penguin-Random House, ebook format
New York City is known for its glamour, and nowhere is this more apparent than in its fashion scene. Sharing the pedestal with Paris, Milan, and London as fashion capital of the world, New York continually astounds with its creativity, daring, and innovations in the name of beauty. Yet high fashion means high stakes, as Alex Cooper quickly discovers when a murder rocks New York City’s Fashion Week. Along with Detectives Mike Chapman and Mercer Wallace, Alex must reveal the grime beneath the glitz to expose the culprit—unless a wolf in model’s clothing gets to them first.
READ ON FOR MY REVIEW!
This is, by far, the toughest review I’ve had to write this summer. I say that first because I haven’t had a good experience with “straight” thrillers, as a rule. A romantic, paranormal, or horror thriller, fine. Same with crime novels, I think this book is both. Anyway, I’m of two different minds on KILLER LOOK.
The First mind is pretty annoyed:
How can a book from a genre that promises thrills be so boring!? I mean, we’re talking about murder, and an ADA with PTSD. But dear Book Goddesses, it was so dry, by the time we finally got around to the halfway point, I was acting like a teenager. You know: rolling my eyes, sighing in a beleaguered manner. I didn’t care about the characters, I was only vaguely interested in who committed the murder, and holy comfy thrift store clothes how much I really, REALLY don’t care about the fashion industry. Seriously. If you’re a writer, you know how they tell you that you don’t have to share every. Little. Bit. Of backstory you researched?
Yeah, well, Ms. Fairstein dumped so many Fashion Facts on my head that I either shrunk a few inches, or might even be able to go work in the industry now. It could come in handy if I have to write about the business in my freelance job, but in my fiction? A little goes a long way.
When I checked out the “about the author” section, I found this:
“LINDA FAIRSTEIN was chief of the Sex Crimes Unit of the district attorney’s office in Manhattan for more than two decades and is America’s foremost legal expert on sexual assault and domestic violence.” from Amazon.com
And it made me think, “Ah, I see.” The way Ms. Fairstein delivers her story is very by-the-book, lawyerly, almost like a cop’s crime report. My theory is that the characters and plot didn’t carry the kind of “thrills” or rich, interesting characters I was expecting because perhaps they were only a framework upon which to hang the author’s hard-won and researched knowledge. It was something I ran into when I tried reading Kathy Reichs’ Temperance Brennan books, which are what Bones, the FOX TV show, are based on. I was a big fan of the show early on, so I did what I often do when something on TV or in a movie entertains me: I read the books. But the books were just too bland for my taste. No, bland isn’t quite the right word. I want to say ‘dry’ again, but tedious will work, too. Thrillers seem very “this happened, this happened, this happened, etc.” Only couched in better language.
I was looking for “entertainment” the way I enjoy it, but I was getting something that is entertainment for another genre’s fans. Not the fault of thrillers as a whole.
One of the things that bugged me as a reader included the heroine herself. How, exactly, was she running around town poking her nose in and ignoring orders by insisting on taking part in the book’s investigation(s)? With her detective boyfriend, no less? She’s not a cop, she’s an Assistant District Attorney. And on indefinite leave, no less, suffering from PTSD after being kidnapped, which she refuses to get psychological help for, and instead self-medicates with alcohol and high-end shopping. She’s a trust fund lady, you see. Maybe we were catching her at a bad time in her life, but I just didn’t find her believable (beyond the drinking away her anxiety) or sympathetic at all.
Then there was another thing–a giant trunk’s worth of baggage that was crushing my sternum and making my stomach hurt all the way through the book. Maybe I’m hypersensitive about diversity in fiction right now, but it seemed to me that there is a fat thread of racism running through KILLER LOOK. The black detective, Mercer, who the heroine is supposed to be such close friends with, has no depth at all. He just spouts a line every few dozen pages, and happens to know a lot about “Voodoo.” (More on the detective in a minute.)
Voodoo is one of several related religions–actual religions, not something writers made up to tell cool stories–which grew out of the slave experience in the United States and other countries. It has living practitioners, and is widely misunderstood and misrepresented. (Mostly thanks to books, movies, and TV shows.) Only in recent years, in fact, has it become legal to take part in certain Voodoo rituals practiced by some sects. Which can’t be surprising, considering the oppression of the religion’s creators and practitioners to begin with. It gets predictably harsh treatment in KILLER LOOK.
Voodoo is eeeeeevillll, and its adherents are craaaaaazeeeeee.
The vision of the eventual murder victim stomping into the office of a rich white male CEO, throwing a bag of chicken bones on his desk, pounding them to dust with a hammer, then spending an hour running around the room, chanting and flinging chicken bone dust, ostensibly because she couldn’t get as much money as she wanted from the CEO was just… wrong. Then there was one of the hotel maids, who was depicted as silly, stupid, off her nut, and superstitious by the detectives and ADA as she babbled and hemmed and hawed about going into a hotel room because of the “bad juju.” Why not have her throw her hands in the air and shout “Oh, Lordy!” Ugh.
It gets progressively worse: I noticed the following oft-used and offensive black stereotypes in KILLER LOOK: 1. a”magical negro” detective (the aforementioned Mercer), with all that juicy ethnic wisdom to help out the white folks; 2. the “angry black woman,” who also happens to carry some traits of the old-fashioned “savage” and “tragic mulatta” stereotypes and ends up being the victim of a brutal murder, 3. two servants (jobs which are described a favors from the rich white man for various reasons), one of which is depicted as a”savage” and a “mammy,” and 4. an apparent passel of variously devastated black models who were lovers of the rich white man with a fetish for them, one of which was tossed out of his life so harshly that she died in Africa giving birth to his baby (that he knew about when he rejected her, firing her and getting her deported). (Wikipedia has a very surface look at African-American Stereotypes, from which I gave these bare details. Food for thought.)
This wasn’t initially meant to be a rant against racism and ethnic mis-appropriation and stereotyping for entertainment purposes (okay, maybe it was a little). But the characters I mentioned, who were nothing more than their archetypes, the stereotypical treatment of Voodoo in this book, and the way it was portrayed as part of the murder plot, just rubbed me the wrong way. To add insult to injury, all of these issues are wrapped up in a fancy paper of rich, urbane, intelligent white people (no silly superstitions here, no sir).
White people good. Black people less good.
Call me over-sensitive, that’s fine, but as a writer and a reader, I want to learn to notice the way we characterize people outside our normal frame of reference. Coming from a place of privilege, it really is my duty to learn the way literature affects how we see one another as human beings. Even in “genre” fiction. Words have power. That’s part of why I love them. They can be used as tools of pain and oppression, or they can be used to achieve understanding and freedom.
But… (if there can be one after all that)
This brings me to my second mind on KILLER LOOK: it’s not a bad book, on its face. Looking at it as objectively as possible, it’s very well-plotted and written, and it does offer some insight into some unusual worlds: the aftermath of a brutal crime, PTSD, homicide police work, and fashion. There’s a mystery, there are the required red herrings, and the solving of the crime unfolds in a decent fashion, with twists and turns. I was happy to find scenes set at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, because that’s one of my favorite museums and a must-visit anytime I’m there.
I also must mention that reading and reviewing this book WAY violates my series rule: this is the 18th book in the Alexandra Cooper series (my rule: not starting after #2 unless I’ve read them all). I’m sure that much of the character development I usually expect in a single volume from other genres I read has been spread finely through the entire series. Fans probably feel like Alex/Coop is a good friend, they know her so well. Same with the secondary plots that wound through the mystery at the center of the book: there is an enormous amount of backstory that I know nothing about, and I’m sure that made the book feel more flat to me. Which is why I have the series rule to begin with.
Which leaves me with the serious question: how do I rate KILLER LOOK? I didn’t like it, and in fact, found things about it pretty offensive, but structurally, it wasn’t a terrible book. It didn’t contain any of my usual spelling, punctuation, or grammar pet peeves, and I had to look up a few words, which annoys some people, but I like it. It was a decent mystery that did make me read through to the end to find the answer.
If we look at the Batty Book Review System, it says:
OO – Two Full Moons: Not really to my taste, but not terrible.
O – One Full Moon: Has serious flaws that make it difficult to read and review fairly.
KILLER LOOK is technically a 2, but I have to ding it HARD for the awful ethnocentrism. Therefore, we’re looking at:
One Batty Moon