Posted by: Judy M. Goodman | June 9, 2009

For Quirky Mystery Lovers

Now there’s an ambiguous title! Never mind. Harley Jane Kozak’s Wollie Shelley series will satisfy both lovers of quirky mysteries and quirky readers who love mysteries. These are the first books I’ve ever seen which are both character & plot driven. Despite her eccentric family, Wollie Shelley wants to be a wife and mother. All the danger and outrageousness she faces in the first book Dating Dead Men plays out against a “scientific” study directed by a radio psychology intending to help women choose men who won’t dump.   Dressed by the psychologist’s sponsors – all of whom seem to like the hooker look – she must commit serial dating, 40 men in six months. In the second book Dating is Murder her best girlfriends Joey & Fredreeq have finagled her a role as a contestant on a seedy reality show called “Biological Clock.” In which she, dressed like a hooker, must date a series of truly obnoxious men on television.

Oh well, it is L.A. we’re talking about.

Wollie – short for Wollstonecraft – is a thirty-some, well-endowed graphic artist who creates and markets her own line of alternative greeting cards. As one of a plethora of outlandish, yet oddly believable characters, Wollie boils about LA stumbling into. not Byzantine plots, but strong plots which are camouflaged by wacky incidentals against which the reader has no defense. Kozak’s slapstick mysteries are the first I’ve ever encountered in which the humor did not eviscerate the mystery.

The foremost eccentricity is that, as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, intentionally named after the Frankenstein Monster’s mother gives us a reflection of the monster in her own mother, an aging hippy, proud of her socialist heritage. Wollie’s mother rankles at being called Mom, preferring her daughter to address her by her name. No, not Estelle – Pranna,  like they call her on the ashram. Her brother P.B., a mental patient on the verge of moving to a halfway facility, manifests an odd schizophrenia which bounces him back and forth between paranoia and wisdom. Last, there’s her Uncle Theo, a very gentle man, a kind of cross between Albert Einstein, Liberace, and P.B..

Joey and Fredreeq are as close to stereotypes as Kozak gets. She endows every character with traits that identify which Hollywood archetype into which s/he fits, but gives them twists on the archetype which makes them unique individuals. Consequently, the cast lends a normalcy to some often surreal events.

As the “visiting” cast becomes more outrageous with each book, Kozak, with an admirable, caution-to-the wind attitude, expertly weaves the characters into the plots, subplots, and situations which obfuscate the formula. If the reader isn’t straining her bladder at the sheer hilarity of the writing and situations, she’s running as breathless as she would be in Wollie’s shoes.

Kozak has a deft touch with setting as well. No one who’s lived in L.A. or visited locals could ever say this sprawling, eclectic city was not a character in itself. Still, this author’s hand paints an uncompromising, funny, loving picture of every social and financial stratum. Dare one say accurate? Whether the main background is the restaurant scene, a sleazy reality show, a derelict editing room, or a secret, paramilitary compound, the reader shares Wollie’s emotional responses to place.

 

 

 

Dating Dead Men won the Agatha Award for Best First Mystery Novel and the Anthony Award for Best First Novel. However, if I must be honest, my favorite is Dead Ex: A novel.

The Wollie Shelley Series:

Personal Author: Kozak, Harley Jane, 1957-, Title: Dating Dead Men, Publication info: New York : Doubleday, c2004.

Personal Author: Kozak, Harley Jane, 1957,  Title: Dating is Murder,  Publication info: Doubleday, 2005.

 Personal Author: Kozak, Harley Jane, 1957,  Title: Dead Ex : a novel, Publication info: New York : Doubleday, c2007.

 Personal Author: Kozak, Harley Jane, 1957,  Title: A Date You Can’t Refuse,  Variant title: A Date You Cannot Refuse, Publication info: New York : Broadway Books, 2009

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