Murder mystery's expected plot lacks urgency

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Book Review

Several characters together alone in a mansion, all with a hidden motivation to kill and one dead body: it’s formulaic, sure, but why fix what isn’t broken? Especially when it works well, as it does in Kate White’s “So Pretty It Hurts,” a standard mystery novel that reads briskly and entertains throughout.

The dead body this time around belongs to Devon Barr, a gorgeous supermodel who was about to break into the music business with the release of her first album. The detective is Bailey Weggins, a tabloid journalist who specializes in celebrity deaths. Maybe it’s a bit too perfect that she happens to have been at the mansion when Barr kicked the bucket, but after this trite beginning, the novel improves.

Barr dies in what appears to be an accidental suicide, but faithful readers know to expect a bit more from the story. The investigation, along with its red herrings, is handled ably by White, even if her character’s voice lacks the kind of noir-ish punch that a narrator like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe provides.

The novel never deviates very far from the expected beats of a murder mystery and also suffers from a lack of urgency. The moments when Weggins is in danger are few and far between, and once the killer and motive have been revealed, it’s not clear that Weggins ever was in any kind of real danger. Sure, nobody who commits a murder wants to get caught, but in this case, the murder doesn’t turn out to be a cover-up for a huge conspiracy as it might in a more exciting mystery.

And while nobody needs their escapist novels to have airtight plots, there’s an enormous unexplained hole in the story that even Weggins admits in the final pages she hasn’t figured out. It’s unclear as to whether or not even the author understood why a certain event happened, but allowing such a glaring unexplained story element smacks of lazy writing.

Still, the devil is in the details, and that’s where White gets things right. She’s a rather ingenious writer, coming up with a sick and twisted way to kill a person, and is great at pulling the reader along with her literary slight of hand. It’s to her credit that though she spends her days as the editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine, “So Pretty It Hurts” can be enjoyed by those who wouldn’t be caught dead reading a woman’s magazine.

“So Pretty It Hurts” is a fun and fast read, but one with an ending that will leave readers somewhat unsatisfied. Still, it’s an effective page-turner and, though some may finish it a tad disappointed, the time spent reading it won’t feel wasted.

Printed on Monday, April 2, 2012 as: Songstress enthralls despite empty plot