Many of you are no doubt familiar with Harris from her Southern Vampire series (which is the inspiration for Showtime’s True Blood). However, vampire fiction fan that I am, I have still not gotten around to the Sookie books. Instead, Harris hooked me in with a librarian protagonist–another weakness of mine. Based on Real Murders, though, I’m fairly sure I won’t be rushing off for another Harris book anytime soon. (Do any of you fair readers enjoy the Sookie Stackhouse books? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts…)
My review of Real Murders was published on Reviewing the Evidence. You can read it on their website, or see the full text below.
In the wake of the staggering success of Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire novels featuring psychic waitress Sookie Stackhouse, dedicated fans and new readers alike are being (re)introduced to Harris’ previous series, including her Aurora Teagarden mysteries. The first in the Teagarden series, Real Murders, introduces Aurora “Roe” Teagarden, a diminutive, bespectacled librarian in the small Georgia town of Lawrenceton. Roe nurtures a fascination with true crime stories—an interest shared by several other town residents—and together, these enthusiasts form the Real Murders club which meets once a month to discuss all manner of murder and mayhem. Among its members, the Real Murders club boasts a Lizzy Borden expert, a massacre and genocide specialist, and a man specifically interested in hate crimes. As Roe is soon to discover, however, Real Murders has also provided an unintended education for a vicious killer who has begun targeting club members using real life murder scenarios as inspiration.
For those readers with a somewhat gruesome sense of fun, this is an appealing premise for a crime novel—a sort of And Then There Were None puzzler in which neither victim nor reader is forced to suffer through much actual violence or emotional trauma. Unfortunately, while it is styled as a Southern cozy, Real Murders struggles from the start to strike a balance between light humor and a grim, almost fetishistic fascination with unsettling violence. Upon discovering the first murder—which abruptly takes place during the first 25 pages—Roe remarks that the victim was “so dead,” a statement that could be read as almost funny until the reader finds out that the murdered woman has been savagely bludgeoned, leaving “her head…the wrong shape entirely.” And while Roe’s initial reaction is as one would expect—disturbed, disgusted, and shocked—she quickly recovers, igniting not one, but two new romantic relationships, and taking part in her own personal investigation even as people closer and closer to her become the targets of the murderer.
Roe—and most of the other characters in Real Murders—are written not as Agatha Christie-esque caricatures, but as actual people. Throughout the course of the novel, we learn a fair amount about Roe and her life: her work at the public library, her non-existent dating life, her ambitious mother who has built an impressive real estate empire. Roe is, in effect, a “real” person. In general, one would praise an author for creating a multi-dimensional character, but in this particular case, Roe’s believability dissipates whenever the murder plot comes into play—which, as one might expect, it does frequently. Because even when Roe expresses the horror of what she is experiencing (and it’s worth noting that the crimes do, in fact, become increasingly and graphically horrific) she doesn’t appear to actually be feeling much of anything. To really be traumatized in the way that someone who has seen a personal acquaintance beheaded, for instance, really should be traumatized.
Writing about classic ‘Golden Age’ crime fiction, the masterful P.D. James has recognized that our favorite Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers books are “..novels of escape. We are required to feel no real pity for the victim, no empathy for the murderer, no sympathy for the falsely accused.” Such also appears to be the case for Real Murders. However, one has to wonder if such novels are not somewhat anachronistic for a contemporary reader, for whom real and graphic violence is a daily part of the morning’s papers. Harris would do well to take a page from any number of contemporary crime writers who are able to stage violent crimes with more than a modicum of empathy—P.D. James, Henning Mankell, Camilla Lackberg, and Patricia Highsmith all come to mind—rather than betraying quite so much glee at the scene of a crime.