Monday, March 11, 2013

Book Review: Three Graves Full by Jamie Mason

Three Graves Full/Gallery Books/February 2013
A purported dark comedy proves that marketing is a very powerful thing.

Three Graves Full, the debut mystery novel by Jamie Mason, has some darned compelling jacket copy. Dig this:

For fans of the Coen brothers’ films or for those who just love their thrillers with a dash of sharp humor—an engaging and offbeat story about a man driven to murder, who then buries the body in his backyard only to discover that there are two other shallow graves on his property.

The Coen brothers? Sharp comedy and multiple graves? Add in some fawning praise from authors like Tana French and Peter Straub (“Special” says the former; “Astonishing” says the latter), and promo material peppered with adjectives like quirky and Hitchcockian, and I really couldn’t resist.

What I discovered after reading Three Graves Full is that all of those descriptions seem to be for the first chapter only. After that, well, things fall apart. The beginning is a doozy: a mild-mannered man has a body buried in his backyard -- the body of a man he murdered. When landscapers discover a different body buried in his yard, then another, things get complicated.

The Hitchcock comparison is deserved in the early parts of the book. Think The Trouble with Harry rather than Psycho. We find out at the beginning of the book that the nebbish-y Jason has killed a man. What we don’t know is why, and as Mason unspools the back story, Jason’s feelings of guilt build to what, in the earlier parts of the book, feels almost as claustrophobic as something by Patricia Highsmith.

Unfortunately, that back story ends up being told too fast. Once the details behind the killing come out, followed by the details of the murders of the other bodies, there’s not a lot to care about. Mason tries to keep the story moving by switching up character perspectives from chapter to chapter -- something that almost works, for a time.

Mason has a good sense of character details, and has fun with them. I was charmed by a  sheriff’s wife who won’t talk on the phone without putting clothes on, and a deputy whose diet has him so desperate for junk food that he eats sour cream with onion salt on it. The author is at her best when the plot isn’t moving, but when it moves again, it seems to be out of her control, especially when there's a lot of action.

As the story progresses, the multiple character points of view converge, and instead of choosing one character’s perspective for intense scenes, Mason head hops, a cardinal sin of writing, and for good reason. The character perspective changes from sentence to sentence, making it hard to understand who is doing what, and even more: why we should care. If there’s no perspective, there’s no way to empathize with anyone. Mason even tells us the thoughts of a dog, which some readers will no doubt find cute, but cuteness seems at odds with something calling itself a dark comedy.

I blame the editors.

In a rush to market a book with a unique angle, it seems as if the book was published with a second half that could have benefited from an extensive rewrite. To top it off, the marketing hype far exceeds what the book actually delivers. Sure, that will sell some books, but will readers come back for more? I’m left wondering if all the positive blurbs and reviews are from readers who read the marketing materials and were swept away on the wave of hype.

I do think we’ll see more of Jamie Mason. She’s extremely talented, and has turned out a decent, though quite flawed, first novel. I hope that she gets the chance to work with some editors who will ensure a less muddled final draft, and market her more directly to the cozy mystery audience. While the book does have a darkish streak, it’s more gray than black -- sort of a cozy for people with just a little bit of an edge.

The bottom line: Three Graves Full, though billed as a dark comedy, is neither very dark, nor very comic.

Have you read anything that didn’t seem to match up with the jacket copy? How closely do you read the publisher’s information versus reviews from actual readers?