Friday, May 23, 2008

Fool on the Hill

Morgan Hunt
$14.95, trade paperback, 190 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1593500276
Alyson Books

Morgan Hunt's second mystery, Fool on the Hill brings back Tess Camillo, a smart-mouth lesbian with a varied and colorful past. Tess is a 40-something computer nerd and breast cancer survivor. Her original love was actually mathematics, and computer programming was more palatable than accounting or teaching math. Hunt has created a strong, quirky voice in Tess. Her whimsical associations, internal musical sound-tracks, and slightly skewed world view are charmingly idiosyncratic.

Fool on the Hill opens as Tess and her housemate, Lana, attend a rock concert of Gabrielle Letheross with Cody Crowne as the opening act. Cody had been a chart topper in the 1980s but is fading in his late middle years. Lana, president of the local Cody Crowne fan club, has been waiting for years to see him in concert. Both women have a fantastic time. The next day brings a shock when his murdered body is discovered by Tess out walking in Open Space. Particularly shocking is the extremely brutal method of his murder. His teeth were removed, his finger tips were cut off, and he was crucified.

The traumatic discovery piques Tess's curiosity. Prompting her to this: "I wondered if [Lana]'d remember to separate the whites for bleaching, but didn't want to nag her. I wondered what Thomas Paine would have thought of our current electoral process. I wondered how many IQ points we lose for each hour of reality TV we watch. I wondered if I should take a personal interest in tracking down Cody's murderers. I wondered a lot of things, then helped Lana with the laundry. Even after your own personal Calvary, you need clean underwear. " (24)

Tess is assisted in her amateur sleuthing by a range of folks. Lana uses her new age touch to help question suspects and acts as look out. Tess's "husband" Roark Jurist -- they met over 20 years ago while both were struggling to survive in that closet called the US Navy, married for cover, divorced after they both left the service, and have remained friends -- now works with the "Immensely Powerful Government Spooks or IPoGS" (34) and provides Tess with an amazing array of valuable information via his connections. Kari, a detective with the SDPD whom Tess dated briefly, provides more official assistance. Hunt has created a fairly traditional mystery in that the clues are apparent to the reader as Tess finds them. The story is fast paced and fun. As secrets are uncovered, another murder occurs, bring the case even closer to home for Tess and Lana.

Tess's San Diego and its surroundings add color and character to Fool on the Hill with various locales playing roles in the plot. Carousel rides, trips to Legoland, Balboa Park, and the historic district give texture to the story, including a charming scene at the Chicken Pot Pie Shop, a San Diego landmark diner. Or as Tess describes, "The decor was Green Acres kitsch. .... A high shelf along the far wall held ceramic poultry of every sort. Rhode Island red knickknacks could be found behind the cash register; macaroni art of leghorns and bantams hung on the dinning area walls. Not exactly Martha Stewart, but with food this good, who gives a cluck?" (159)

Tess's voice is distinct and amusing, although sometimes her over-the-top metaphors are distracting. Occasionally Tess's powerful narrative voice becomes expository, not quite successfully taking the place of dialogue and action, from which some scenes might have benefited. This kind of "telling" of the story has a "thinning" effect to the novel overall. Hunt is a talented writer who has created a cast of quirky characters. Additional constructive editing could help Hunt develop a more robust mystery to better showcase her vivid characterization. She has great promise for future mysteries. This reader certainly looks forward to more of Tess.

The prime example of a metaphor that did not work, for this reader, was Tess's analogy for oral sex. "When we changed positions, her softest layers became the rink in an Olympic competition; my tongue, the skates. I played with figure eight's [sic], smooth glides, and occasional double Axels. Encouraged by her moans, I won the Gold with a triple loop." (143) Ice and blades, even attached to skates, just aren't on my mind regardless of the grace involved. If Hunt needed a sports analogy, synchronized swimming might have worked better.

Perhaps more importantly, the love scene, which was Tess's first sexual encounter since her surgery, seemed anticlimactic, as it were. Certainly the scene failed, for this reader, to resolve in a clear way the anxiety that Tess had previously expressed while anticipating the event, baring her surgery scars to a lover for the first time. It seemed a disservice to Nova's character for her not to be shown reassuring and satisfying Tess's needs. Yet Tess seems much less introspective about the relationship than she is about other aspects of her life. Since Tess's romantic life is the second most important thread to the novel, its light treatment is unsatisfying.

Overall, Fool on the Hill is fast paced, engaging and fun. The characters are interesting and compelling. Tess Camillo is a welcome addition to the cast of amateur sleuths that mystery readers can enjoy. Pick up a copy, Tess is sure to have you humming along with a world spinning round.


Isobel Rowan said...

Hi MJ,

I found your website recently through Google and I subscribe on RSS. Thanks for your reviews. I'm always looking for good fiction. I will definitely have to check this out, though I prefer romance to mystery. But I like smart-ass characters, so maybe it will draw me in. Keep up the good work.


MJ Lowe said...

Thanks, Isobel. It is a mystery, but the tone is very fun. So hopefully, it will be an except for you.
Happy Reading!

Unknown said...

mj, Thanks for the review. I don't know this author but will add it to my wish list, Cheers! Lainie