Final Jeopardy by Linda Fairstein — I saw this book (and by extension this series) lauded as incredibly accurate procedural murder mystery, and I thought I’d check it out. Then I discovered it’s narrated by Barbara Rosenblatt, and became even more interested.
To start out with, however, B.R.’s narration isn’t all that great here. Her voicework is still literally the best in the entire history of narrators, hands down, but her inflection is pretty bad. She often adopts this tone of surprise at random moments that makes certain sentences read very oddly indeed. However, even with this deficiency, she’s still better than many narrators in my audiobook collection, and her unsurpassed voicework makes up for a lot. So moving on to the book itself.
The writing is dreadful: infodump after infodump after infodump and probably the most unnatural (and infodumpy) dialogue I’ve ever encountered anywhere. Also, I’m not a fan of Fairstein’s use of tense shifts. However, the characters are well fleshed-out (perhaps a little too much so in the case of Alex, about whom we have an unwieldy mass of details by the end), and you get a very good sense of them and their relationships.
Apart from the necessarily obtrusive effects of the murder the story leads with, at first it reads very much like a slice-of-life tale rather than a mystery, and the much-lauded procedure is far more Alex’s own career than the police investigation. This makes sense, given that the author herself was a prosecutor, not an investigator, but it’s not what I was expecting. In fact, despite how interesting Alex’s business as a prosecutor was to read about, I thought for a while that I probably wouldn’t pick up the next book in the series.
And then a bombshell dropped that turned the story into more of a soap opera, and I was BACK ON BOARD. I just had to adjust my expectations. Suddenly it was great :D And in the end, the murder mystery turned out to be well formulated, solid, and fascinating too. So I will be picking up the next book.
Thaaaat doesn’t mean I don’t have complaints, though. Besides what I’ve already mentioned, I mean.
Many of my own readers know that I greatly prefer fiction to be placed very specifically in time without ambiguity. I dislike the type of writing that attempts to be vague in the vain hope that it can keep from being dated and have a more lasting appeal thereby. An accurate representation of an era (even if that “era” is no longer than a year or two) that gives a good sense of the time it’s set is, to me, eminently preferable to something nebulous that could conceivably be taking place any time over a couple of decades.
This book is set in the mid 90’s, but to me it feels 10-15 years earlier — which is a phenomenon I’ve sometimes observed in books by authors that grew up earlier than the era when their work is set. It’s not like Fairstein wasn’t around, or even actively practicing law, in the 90’s… but clearly that wasn’t a formative era for her habits or her way of thinking.
She, I believe, is 10-15 years older than her character, and it shows — she seems to have written a story about a thirty-something-year-old woman that plays out as it might have done back when she was thirty-something rather than being an accurate portrayal of the era in which it’s ostensibly set.
Now, granted, I was not a legal adult through most of the 90’s, so it’s possible my impression of the adult world in that decade is not entirely accurate to begin with. I still got a very old-fashioned vibe from this book that was kinda jarring, though, and it contributed to my impression of Fairstein as not a very good author in several respects.
Another thing that bugged me was a sort of smugness about the prosecution of sex criminals that didn’t quite sit right with me. No matter how monstrous the crime of rape is, no matter how inhuman some of the criminals may seem, the U.S. legal system still considers people accused of crimes innocent until proven guilty — but the language used in this book consistently demonstrated an attitude just the opposite, and an almost vigilante-like set of sensibilities that I found very uncomfortable. This is not to say I felt any sympathy for any rapist in any way… I just couldn’t consider these white knight characters on their dogmatic high horses very admirable either.
Then this passage in particular disturbed me:
“And if there is a trial, will they be able to question me about my personal life, about my sexual activity?”
“No, Katherine, there have been a lot of improvements, a lot of changes in the law. In a case like this, when you’ve been attacked by a man you never saw before, nothing about your sexual history is relevant to the trial. I promise you: this stuff isn’t like all those awful made-for-TV movies. Detective Wallace does the heavy lifting in this case—the worst is behind you. Once he finds the man and you identify him, we won’t have you on the witness stand for more than an hour.”
So, what, now real life is an awful made-for-TV movie? And apparently it’s changed? So women who’ve been raped aren’t harassed about their sexual history in court? When did this happen?
There was more of this self-congratulatory style of language throughout the book, about how much things had improved and how successful the legal system had become, and given what the statistics still are about rape convictions twenty years later, it was frankly kinda sickening to read. While I absolutely believe the system had improved, the language used went disturbingly far beyond just that idea into farcical “Look how great our sex crimes prosecution system is! Those sick animals don’t know what hit ’em!” territory.
(I got much the same extremely disturbing “Things used to suck but it’s all right now” vibe from the following passage: “This island was inhabited by Indians— Wampanoags— until the English came. The history was like everyplace else in America— and the Indians were pushed off their land, up to the very tip of the island. Now the tribal lands are protected and the tribe has won official recognition from the government.”)
Incidentally, though there were mentions of a couple of instances of date rape, most of the cases featured in this book were of rape by strangers, sometimes with home invasion involved. And of course these things happen, but how likely are they to make up the majority of the cases focused on by an assistant D.A. at any given time? Did the author, perhaps, consider them more dramatic and interesting than the far more common acquaintance rape, and therefore focused on them at the expense of a realism she would have understood all too well?
I’m not entirely sure how my experience of this book has been affected by my mistrust of the author. I did end up enjoying it, and I am planning on picking up the next one, but I can never forget what I read on Wikipedia about Fairstein’s possible coercive and unethical behavior toward defendants.
I don’t know that I think that sort of behavior (or even the underlying attitudes that could lead to it) would make someone a worse writer or less able to use her experience to formulate good stories or characters… but I do think it’s in keeping with the attitudes in the book that specifically disturbed me. Would they have disturbed me as much if I hadn’t read about the allegations against the author before I read the book? I don’t know.
In any case (PUN INTENDED), I am interested in learning a lot of things from the next installment in the series (and possibly further than that): whether Fairstein’s writing improved, whether what bothered me so much in this book is present in the next, whether my impression of the author ever changes, and so on.
P.S. I didn’t like the title for a while, but now, the more I think about it, the more reasons I find to like it.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine — Zombie Girl recommended this TV series on the basis of its being very diverse and funny. Interestingly, some aspects of it kinda remind me of the last thing she recommended (Dumbing of Age) — mostly, that the characters are exaggerated enough to be hilarious, but at the same time have grounding realistic characteristics that make them believable and engaging.
OK, though, admittedly, the Brooklyn Nine-Nine characters are more on the exaggerated end of the spectrum, and there are far fewer serious moments or story threads than in Dumbing of Age, and it’s gotten me thinking about the nature of characters in ongoing comedies… as well as the nature of the humor itself.
I dislike mean-spirited humor, and find that a lot of TV comedies tend to rely quite a bit on it. “Let’s make fun of this pathetic person” seems to be the go-to style of humor in many long-running comedies (one-shots, such as a single 90-minute movie, may sometimes be a different story), and I’m interested in how necessary that actually is, especially when I find a comedy like this wherein it’s less prevalent.
Of course there’s a difference between hurtful, disrespectful mockery and workplace/in-group banter that may sound bad to an outsider but that the participants understand as friendly. The line between these may be drawn at a different place by any given person, and may blur when the banter is played for comedy to an audience that is, by necessity, a bit of an outsider. I may even forgive dialogue that’s exaggerated somewhat in the direction of the hurtful rather than the friendly. But only up to a certain point.
Which brings me to stock characters. Is it just me, or do TV comedies rely more on stock characters than any other genre? I was going to list some of my favorites (irony there), but I find I’d rather not because it makes me feel kinda sick. The point is that there are certain types of characters that seem to get recycled ad infinitum in comedies in order to be ridiculed. And not only is it lazy writing, it’s often sexist, racist, classist, and other ists and phobics I can’t think of right now.
Anyway, this series has been blessedly (if not 100%) free of that thus far. Peralta is funny because he’s a goofball and kindof a jerk, but his inappropriate behavior to others never seems to cross into the genuinely hurtful, and when he does take it a little too far he’s often shown regretting and apologizing for his mistakes. Santiago is funny because she’s overly keen, strait-laced, and a brown-noser, but she’s not portrayed as hopeless and destined never to succeed; you may think she’d do better to back off a bit, but you can see she’s genuinely talented and consistently gets the job done. Boyle is funny because he’s completely confident in his own somewhat socially inept but nevertheless effective self; he tends to be the butt of a lot of jokes, but his co-workers and the audience know he can absolutely handle them, and he’s able to continue to be himself with being at all cowed or discouraged by the opinions of the people around him. I could go on.
And, yeah, there are definitely some comedy cliches in there… but the point is that they’re not taken to the disagreeable point of mean-spirited humor or completely generic stock characters. And they’re not, at least at the point of the series I’ve reached, offensive. Which is damned refreshing, since the series is, in fact, as promised, hilariously funny.
Contrast is, of course, an essential part of comedy as it is of most storytelling, and I appreciate that in this series the contrasting mood is often one of touching kindness and loyalty. It makes the comedy funnier, the characterization more complex, and the overall story more engaging. And in some cases it enhances the inclusivity and sense of decency of the series.
So with so many new media appearing with more delightfully diverse casts, I’m starting to wonder how long the current period will last of “cis het white dude is the main main character surrounded by a more diverse (and often far more interesting) set of secondaries and tertiaries.” It seems like an interesting transitional stage we’re in, and it also seems likely to last quite some time.
Anyway. I’m still in season one of this show, and I’m hoping my opinion will never be forced to change except for the better.
The Game by Laurie R. King — I don’t understand why King chose the opening she did. Was it supposed to fool anyone into thinking Mary was actually going to be stabbed as a human sacrifice? (Because I doubt it ever would.) Or was she just satirizing the type of book that might expect that misconception? In either case, to me it seems unbearably trite and pointless, and when I got around to the actual scene in the story I kinda groaned.
I can accept it more readily if it was set up in deliberate contrast to the far more believable and much closer to home sense of fear and horror evoked by the character of Jimmy, who sacrifices humans on a level, though usually less literal, far more legitimate and threatening. I was very impressed with how visceral a reaction King was able to call up by the description of Jimmy’s behavior.
Another thing I’m always impressed with in this series is the plethora of detail about settings and time period. Aside from feeling accurate (though I don’t tend to check), it introduces aspects of life from then and there that I may never have so much as heard of before.
The prime example in this book is, of course, pigsticking. Not only is it an interesting piece of historic trivia I never would have known otherwise, it fit thematically with the rest of the story ridiculously well. Physically, any demanding activity typically undertaken by men could have fulfilled the same purpose in story and characterization terms, but what the author chose fit the theme so well that I almost can’t tolerate the idea of something else in there. It also adds a piquancy to the description of life in Khanpur that enriches that setting and renders it absolutely unique and yet entirely believable. Pure genius.
I also enjoy the crossover aspect of this book. I’ve never read Kim (and though I am somewhat tempted, after reading The Game, I was tempted after the last time I read The Game and I still haven’t gotten around to Kim yet), but establishing another fictional character contemporary to Sherlock Holmes as just as real as Holmes in this context gives the world King is working with a very cozy feeling… like, here’s our pal Kimball O’Hara dropping in; next week we may run into Jay Gatsby or Digory Kirke or who knows whom, ’cause it’s a small literary world.
As is becoming the norm, I am behind by a couple of arts and want to get this posted, so they get put off until next time. I may have to rethink how I do these things.