March 17, 2007

Hitting the Right Notes, Sort Of

In her first novel, plain brown wrapper: an Alex Powell Novel, Karen Grigsby Bates shows that, for the most part, she knows the right notes to hit in a conventional detective novel.

Everett Carson, managing editor of the Black magazine Diaspora, is murdered in his Los Angeles hotel room while preparing to receive an award from the NABJ (National Association of Black Journalists). Jim Marron, the White lead detective on the case, asks Alexa Powell, a journalist on a Los Angeles newspaper, and her friend Paul Butler, a journalist on a New York City newspaper, to question some of the journalists who are at the conference because they may be able to get information the Black journalist will not give him. What, however, really motivates Alex to get involved is her belief that the Los Angeles police do not investigate the death of Black folks as thoroughly as they do White folks.

Bates hits some smooth notes in creating convincing characters. Alex, the main character, is intelligent, smart-mouth, attractive, and likeable. But at times readers may wish, as some of the male characters do, she would shut up. I think readers will like her.

Though she comes very close, Bates manages to avoid making Alex’s partner and romantic interest, Paul Butler, the usual dog of many Black romance novels. He is intelligent, handsome, and a smooth talker with the ladies. This is, of course, still a stock character but readers will like him too, as do Bates and Alex.

Surprisingly, Jim Marron is not the stock white, bigot type policeman. He, too, is likeable.

Bates hits a sour note in the plot. Alex and Paul fail to solve the case through use of their “little grey cells.” Instead, the reader, who probably has solved the case by the time he or she reaches the end, watches the murderer confessing while attacking Alex. She is not attacked because she knows who the murderer is but because she failed to do something the murder had asked her to do. The story would be better if she were attacked to keep her from revealing the killer’s identity. The motive for the attack on Alex and the confession are simply not plausible.

Another discordant note is the suspense for two-thirds of the novel is sustained by having the detectives travel cross country from Los Angeles to New York, Martha’s Vineyard, Washington DC, and San Francisco to question the suspects. This allows Bates to give the reader a peek into the Black middle class but also tends to make the novel too loose. The only suspense generated is whether she and Paul will have sex.

They sleep in the same bed at the hotels sometimes to save money but don’t engage in lovemaking. This may keep some readers reading but not diehard detective fans. Alex and Paul are put in some danger about two thirds of the way through when they interview the last suspect. But the real, suspenseful action occurs near the end when they are back in Los Angeles and a car hits Alex’s car as she and Paul are driving back to her place after having dinner. Who hit the car? Was it the murderer because they are close to solving the case? These questions keep the reader reading.

Bates follows the rules in this less than suspenseful detective novel. But following the rules does not always make for a good suspenseful story. Moreover, the detectives must always solve the case through use of reason. The motive for the killer confessing must be because he or she is trapped and sees no way out. If the killer does not confess, the murder of Everett will not be solved. One of the rules of the genre is the detective must be seen sifting through the clues and coming up with possible solutions until everything comes together to reveal the murderer.

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