J. J. Henderson's Murder on Naked Beach: A Lucy Ripken Mystery
From the witty title and sexy cover design, to Lucy Ripken's job as a travel photographer, this series promises a new twist on the chick lit mystery, which has already featured series based around such fantasy jobs as wedding planner, petsitter, school psychologist, actress/vintner, debutante/web designer, and a plethora of shop owners (coffee, candy, floral, spa, salon, and laundromat).
Lest you knock this subgenre for riding the coattails of chick lit, consider that tacky marketing doesn't necessitate a crappy book. As the webmaster of Chick Lit Books asserts:
Some of the covers with embarrassing titles and pictures of legs or shoes or shopping bags are truly masking meaningful, touching, hilarious at times and wonderful chick lit stories.
The trouble is, Henderson's series kickoff neither succeeds as chick lit nor transcends the genre. To start with, while chick lit mystery heroines are edgier than those of even the humorous cozy mysteries, Murder on Naked Beach introduces a character who's over the edge:
She had supposedly given up hard liquor, and never drank before 5 p.m. That was what she told herself, anyways[sic], on the days when she had some perspective on the alcohol situation. Here it was not yet noon and instead of perspective she had a mixed drink in hand. But what the hell, this was a press trip, designed for excessive drinking.
Newcomer's share at Alcoholics Anonymous? Nope, it's Lucy Ripken, amateur sleuth.
“Lucy, you reverse snob, wise up and drink some wine,” said Mickey, emptying a glass of red and waving at a tuxedo-clad waiter for a refill. He bustled over and poured for Mickey and then filled Lucy's glass as well. Lucy didn't even try to stop him. After all, she had to get through the evening.
Then there's the encounter with the special Jamaican mushroom omelette – chuckle, chuckle:
The moment had a peculiar bright, luminous, yet frozen quality to it. It felt, Lucy recalled later, as if a dam was about to break, or the earth to quake. Then the Strausses' faces abruptly took on a cartoonish quality. She quickly looked away; her stomach lurched, and she knew. God, could it be?
If your idea of escapism is hanging out at a twelve-step meeting, then read this book. If, on the other hand, you find descriptions of someone stumbling around in an intoxicated haze to be depressing, you may want to steer clear.
The most essential element of escapism is the opportunity to escape into the main character. I didn't find Lucy ideal enough in any way that I'd desire to be her. Instead, as I read, I kept feeling rather relieved that I'm not her - her ability to function under the influence not being a skill to which I aspire. She lacked likable faults or charming quirks or tragic flaws.
If you're going to write fluff for smart women, then it's got to feature an appealing character living an enviable life. Henderson's description of the back-biting, hard-drinking world of travel journalism scares me!
So, maybe this grittiness is actually the point? Again, I quote Chick Lit Books:
A chick lit author takes a character and puts them through a series of mostly realistic ordeals - many that many women can relate to. The end result is usually very interesting, detailed, fun-to-read and satisfying.
Again, Henderson doesn't deliver. We get detailed descriptions of windsurfing and architectural photography, and the aforementioned boozing, but I had a hard time relating. Or wanting to relate.
And I didn't really learn anything about Jamaica, either. In fact, Henderson doesn't make much use of the setting except to express a little hip cynicism. For example, Lucy is portrayed as being down with the locals, in contrast with her companions.
A born-too-late-to-be-a-hippie Emily Dickinson type, all poetry and sensitivity, Allie proceeded now to demonstrate her multicultural awareness by joining the chorus line of Jamaican women, adding hers to the harmony of voices sweetly crooning, “Stir it Up.”
Ouch! Lucy found it hard to watch the girl, acne-riddled, white-skinned, and clueless under a big straw hat, her long black hair and long red skirt swaying as she missed the beat, humiliating herself before the few travelers brazenly sadistic enough to stop and watch. Fortunately it ended quickly, as the singing petered out and the Jamaican girls turned as one to gaze at the tourist woman and wait for her to go away. Allie got the message, skulked off, and life went on.
So, how does this story work as a mystery? It's okay, could have been worse. But my inability to identify with Lucy made for a detached read. Didn't really care much if she solved the mystery. [Disclaimer: I get off on forensic science mysteries.]
Finally, there's not much romantic thrill here, either. Lucy's love interest, Harold, is a decent, age-appropriate, white guy, so... not very exciting. Definitely not a case of Stella getting her groove back. Of course, Henderson wouldn't want to seem culturally insensitive by letting Lucy hook up with Desmond, her Rastafarian windsurfing instructor, who's a total hottie – er, “whose lithe figure moved like an exotic animal, an erotic oversized cat” - wait, what happened to Henderson's cultural sensitivity?
I'm worried that reading the second Lucy Ripken novel, Mexican Booty, would scare me off of visiting our neighbor to the south. And then how would I get the chance to drink affordable margaritas and dance with lonely, buff military boys in Tijuana? Wait, that was another life.
(Murder On Naked Beach: A Lucy Ripken Novel by J. J. Henderson. CDS Books, New York. 2006. $11.95)
G. Miki Hayden. Women's Fiction Forecast. Writers Digest. 2006
Rian Montgomery. What is Chick Lit? Chick Lit Books: hip, modern fiction for women. 2006