Due to my as-yet-unearned-credit in Don’t Judge a Book By Its Cover 101, I started Kathryn Miller Haines’ The Girl is Murder (Roaring Brook, 2011) expecting Veronica Mars* meets Judy Blundell. In other words, a story about a hard-boiled girl sleuth who aids her cash-strapped private detective father in solving a mystery set in 1940s-era New York City.
First, despite the cover art, the title and the number of cigarettes smoked, The Girl is Murder isn’t noir. It’s a historical mystery with oodles of drama—at school and at home—and, like many noir protagonists, 15-year-old Iris Anderson provides us with first-person narration. But she doesn’t have the world-weary attitude of a traditional noir hero, the storyline doesn’t follow the noir arc or have the requisite atmosphere, and for the most part, it doesn’t feature the familiar archetypes. So that was a surprise, but once I reoriented myself, I dug in and wholeheartedly enjoyed it.
There are moments in The Girl is Murder that really shine—Iris’ description of the Harlem nightclub is a standout—and the character development is easily as engrossing as the plotting. In terms of straight prose, though, Judy Blundell’s writing is more capable of smoothly transporting the reader to another place and time.
Iris is likable, bright, realistically frustrating, but not consistently believable: She is so familiar with anti-Semitism that she automatically denies being Jewish, but after witnessing a violent act partially spurred by racism (the slur “dago” is a tipoff), she asks, “Why did they do that?” The plotting occasionally strains credulity, and while the teenage characters are very well-drawn, none of the adults ever transcends stock character status***. Despite an overabundance of old-timey slang (always super fun, but a little does go a long way), the writing is never repetitive, except for a line that’s used twice:
“She tweaked her mouth to the left, releasing a stream of smoke.” (210)
“She tweaked her mouth to the left and exhaled a stream of smoke.” (305)
If you set aside the differences in tone and character, Haines’ book bears distinct similarities to Veronica Mars. In The Girl is Murder, Iris, like Veronica, is a social outcast. Both girls have recently lost their mothers, and both have just experienced a plummet in economic and social status. Both girls want to help their father; both are rebuffed due to their fathers’ protective feelings and pride; both resort to subterfuge and outright disobedience in their attempts to crack the case.
The major difference lies in where their stories begin: When we meet Veronica, she’s already as hard-boiled as any** Dashiell Hammett character. She’s had time to toughen up. The Girl is Murder follows Iris as she transitions from a sensitive girl who’s apt to burst into tears in the school hallway into a girl who, while still not your classic gumshoe, is much stronger and capable than she’d ever thought possible.
By the time the mystery is solved, Iris has shown that being a little less hard-boiled isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I look forward to her next outing.
*If you’re a YA fan and you haven’t watched this short-lived gem, you are missing out. Season One is perfectly wonderful and a must-see, Season Two is pretty good, and Season Three is... well, I never finished Season Three.
**Almost any. No one is more hard-boiled than the Continental Op.
***This point is arguable: As our narrator is a teenager, it’s understandable that she’d see adults as more black and white than an adult reader would.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy is probably engaged in yet-another pitched battle with her new cat.