This is the second of two books about North Carolina my daughter, who lives in the mountains in western NC, sent me. Unlike the first, true travel stories of those mountains in the 18th and 19th centuries, this is fiction.
|The picture of a steep gully in the Great Smokies on the cover of Murder at the Jumpoff grabbed my mountain-loving imagination enough that I read the book during muted TV commercials. Milt Gross photo.|
A murder mystery set in those mountains of North Carolina, Murder at the Jumpoff was written by Jenny Bennett and published in March of 2012 by Canterbury House Publishing, Ltd., 225 Ira Harmon Road, Vilas, NC 28692. The publisher's web address is www.canterburyhousepublishing.com.
While the story itself is okay, a typical murder mystery, and its locations are described well since the writer is very familiar with the area, the writing is okay in some places and poor in others.
Jenny Bennett is well educated for the writing task, being an international reporter in London for 18 years, according to the book. Her education is complete, concluding with an M.A. in Creative Writing from Boston University. She now operates her own freelance editing business, Summer Afternoon Editing.
But her apparent first novel is not written that well.
There is too much of, "Sure, I'd be happy to stop by the Sevier County Sheriff's Office." The problem is throughout the book is that who is the subject of the immediate sentence or paragraphs is not clear. Added to that problem is that the tale involves a lot of characters, most of whom are referred to only by their first names with no other information after the first mention.
At times, I lost track of who was who. Bennett wrote, "Hatsy didn't want to be pestering Sally, but she put a call in Monday to find out what was happening with Tim." Sometimes as I read, I wondered the same question about whomever the author was writing at the moment.
I think, not as a professional freelance editor, but as me, I would have done that sentence by trying, "Hatsy didn't want to be pestering the sheriff's department detective, but she put a call in Monday to find out what was happening with Tim, Hatsy's potential romantic interest at times." I'm not too clear as to their relationship, actually, and this sentence I lifted from page 153.
Another mystery appeared in my now feeble-reading mind with this, "Hector got a call from Sally Saturday evening on his cell. Her voice was so loud that he had to hold it away from his ear. "I think we've got him!" she was yelling. She didn't need to explain what she was talking about."
Besides the writing "sin" of ending that last sentence with a preposition, the mystery that puzzled me was why was Sally yelling. This was one law enforcement officer calling another. "She didn't need to explain what she was talking about," leads to my second mystery question of this section. Why she thought so loudly that "...we've got him." Nothing in the preceding paragraphs really hinted at the guilt of "him," a bit too much fog involved in these lines.
Mysteries lead the reader from clue to clue, not suddenly for no apparent reason solving the crime.
Another poor writing technique appears when, "After Sally left, Hatsy looked at the Chilhowee Lake photo again." Two sentences later we read, "An easy outing, decided upon that same morning, a spur-of-the-moment affair." Okay, so they were going somewhere. What the book does not show the reader is that this is a flashback. I was down in the next paragraph before it became clear that this outing involved the murdered character, who we know was found dead way back in the beginning of the book.
There are ways of indicating flashback, such as using an additional verb, "had," in this case. That sentence would have told me this was a flashback had the author written, "An easy outing, that had been decided upon that morning before the murder, a sur-of-the-moment affair." It would have saved me a paragraph's worth of puzzle. Not that puzzles aren't part of mysteries, but good writing keeps the puzzles reasonable in a reader's mind.
The elements of a good mystery are there, the false leads, the implications, and all that good stuff. But a mystery to me is why didn't the writer use writing tools to make the story itself clearer?
Speaking of making the story clearer or solving the mystery, page 192 begins a strange -- to me -- line. The murderer has committed suicide, typical of mystery endings that avoid a trial, and the crime is solved. Now comes a kind of flashback, I think, of the minutes before the murder. Why, I'm not sure. But it begins, "June 10. Don MacIntyre decides to revisit the Jumpoff." This section continues with a play-like way of writng, beginning with dates and then with, "Strauss: Hello.
Struass: Great views, huh?"
And it goes on for awhile, no quotation marks, in this play script-like style. I don't know why it's there, except to detail those minutes before the murder. But it is after the murder has been solved, and it seems like the writer just decided to insert these details of the story -- perhaps after she had finished the book. I don't know. I've never seen this kind of mixed-style writing.
The author obviously knows the mountains and their intricacies, which give the tale a realism to those who know those same mountains. Maybe those places inhabited by the characters were too detailed, maybe not.
It makes me look at a novel on which I've been more or less -- mostly less -- working for several years, a murder mystery that takes place in Acadia National Park and on the Appalachian Trail in Maine, a similar setting to the places in Murder at the Jumpoff. I think my writing may be a bit clearer, my having copied the styles of other well-known mystery writers such as Robert P. Parker.
Of course, the main mystery in my story to date is what is actually going to happen at the tale's conclusion. Which of the possible bad guys are the real bad guys. Maybe when I get around to figuring out the answers to those questions, my story will become a lot better. I want the reader to be guessing at the answer to the mystery, but I have to myself know that answer before I can get that reader to guessing.
Her woods descriptions are good, as in, "As she walked down the weedy fisherman's path above the bridge...." Hey, I remember that path, the weeds, the deer flies, the bridge. That's good writing! Bennett dragged me into the scene through my familiarity with that type of weedy place.
I also learned a bit about "off-trail hiking," which means hiking where there are no trails. In that learning process, I was reminded of difficult places I've been over the years, crawling through brush and up frightening climbs. That's good writing!
As to the actual murder mystery Bennett's book presents and solves, ah, good reader, I won't do what my aunt did when she read mysteries. She skipped ahead to the last page. Why, I have no idea, because it ruins a good mystery to know the solution before you've read the problem.
So, good reader, to find out the actual mystery and its solution in this book, you'll have to go online to the publisher or find a bookstore that carries Murder at the Jumpoff.
Milt Gross can be reached for corrections, harassment, or other purposes at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Milton M. Gross Copyright 2012
Milt Gross Down the Road A Piece Column
Milt Gross Book Reviews