By their shock of pink shall you know them. Mysteries that double as "chick lit" always display something pink on their covers -- a flamingo-hued bikini, a bubblegum-bright mini skirt, a stiletto heel the shade of Pepto Bismol -- as a kind of insider wink to the hip reader. "This mystery is definitely not one of those cozies starring white-haired spinsters who think a walk on the wild side means wearing a dress without support hose," the sassy pink signifier declares. "And no way is it one of those macho thrillers tricked out with a lot of hi-tech scary hardware. This book is a chick lit myst, which means lots of 'Sex and the City'-type sizzle mingled with Bridget Jones-y ditherings about weight and wardrobes played out against a background of trendy boutiques, lavish vacation houses and the occasional icky corpse."
The drawback to all this g-r-r-r-l power attitude cinched in a trench coat of reactionary fantasies is that chick lit mysts can be too much of a frivolous thing, even for us g-r-r-r-ls who just wanna have fun. Reading a whole slew of these stories is like binging on cotton candy washed down with Tab. To be more than just empty carbs, chic lit mysts require sharp social commentary conveyed through witty observation and dialogue. Susan Isaacs and Lisa Scottoline might be thought of as the grandmothers (apologies, ladies) of this emerging subgenre, but, judging by the following selection, most of the young 'uns still have a lot of growing up -- and consciousness raising -- to do. After a while, giddiness about boys and designer bustiers without some gravitas is grating. My advice? Go ahead and extend the lazy days of summer by reading the best of the chick lit mysts that follow, but avoid prolonged exposure to those dangerous, ultra-pink rays.
Kyra Davis's debut novel, Sex, Murder and a Double Latte (Red Dress, $17.95), exemplifies the pleasures and the irritations of the sleuthing-lass lit form. Jewish African-American heroine Sophie Katz is a thriller writer. (None of the heroines in these books is schlepping away at McDonald's or even a boring administrative job.) She lives in San Francisco and pals around with her two best friends, the sexually sophisticated Dena and the petite, shy Mary Ann. (The Nancy Drew template of an intrepid girl detective flanked by two diametrically opposed chums recurs in most of these novels.) When a filmmaker who had expressed a strong interest in Sophie's screenplay appears to have been killed in a manner that mocks a death scene in one of his movies, Sophie grows concerned. When Sophie herself becomes the target of creepy phone calls and a break-in that mimic scenes from her published whodunit, "Sex, Drugs and Murder," she really begins to sweat.
This story line about a serial killer who commits plagiarism as s/he runs around murdering people has itself been copied so often in movies and novels that it barely counts as a plot. But chic lit mysts are so self-reflexively ironic that they wouldn't be caught dead cloaked in a story line that bespoke earnest imaginative effort. What does count in this subgenre is snappy dialogue, and Sex, Murder and a Double Latte entertainingly talks the talk. Waiting in line at Starbucks for her Grande Caramel Brownie Frappuccino with lots of whipped cream, the bi-racial Sophie is accosted by a woman who misreads her "exotic" appearance:
" 'You know, my sister's dating a Native American,' she said winking at me conspiratorially. 'I think you all have a really interesting culture.'
"Oh, I was so not in the mood for this. 'Actually I'm Irish. I'm just wearing a lot of bronzer.' I turned back to my cashier. 'Could you make my drink now?' "
A Dark and Stormy Man
While in line, Sophie also meets a sexy-though-remote man -- another staple of the chick lit myst subgenre. Sophie's hunk is an arrogant Russian; Molly Forrester's man in Killer Cocktail (St. Martin's Minotaur, $24.95) is an NYPD police detective. Molly is an advice columnist (shades of Carrie Bradshaw!) for the trendy magazine Zeitgeist. In Killer Heels, the first novel in this series by Sheryl J. Anderson, Molly solved the murder of the magazine's advertising director. Here, she packs her Pradas and travels to the Hamptons (at the behest of the wealthier of her two best friends) to attend a swanky engagement party. When the bride-to-be is found belly-up in the pool, Molly can't resist snooping around. Killer Cocktail is fast-moving and fun, and Molly evinces a likable streak of self-deprecation. Eating with her gal pals at a trendy Manhattan sandwich joint (cleverly called " 'Wichcraft"), she comments:
"I was doing my best to make sure the tomato relish stayed on my meat loaf sandwich and didn't wind up all down the front of my brand-new white James Perse crewneck tee. My chest is a natural tomato magnet, especially when I'm wearing white. Or maybe it's the size of my breasts; the tomatoes think they've found kindred spirits."
Endless Summer -- Not
The other Hamptons vacation romp in this chick lit myst line-up is a rainout. Killer Summer (Red Dress; paperback, $12.95), by bestselling chic lit author Lynda Curnyn, attempts some fancy technical tricks (an opening voiceover by a corpse a la Sunset Boulevard, multiple first-person narratives). But this outing featuring a young documentary filmmaker named Zoe (and her two best friends) who attempts to solve the murder of her Hamptons hostess is too coarse and sour-spirited to qualify as a good time.
"Gee Whillikers," Nancy Exclaimed
In contrast, Not a Girl Detective (Morrow, $23.95), by Susan Kandel, is as sparkling as a spilled packet of Sweet 'n Low. This is the pink mystery to read if you're reading just one. The conceit of this witty series (which kicked off with I Dreamed I Married Perry Mason) is that L.A. denizen Cece Caruso makes her living writing biographies of dead mystery writers. The twist here is that her current subject was, in fact, a fictional person -- none other than Carolyn Keene, the "author" of the Nancy Drew mysteries. (Keene was the pseudonym for a stable of writers, chief among them Mildred Wirt Benson and Harriet Stratemeyer.) When a flamboyant collector of the precious blue-covered Nancy Drew books is murdered in the same Palm Beach house in which Cece and her two Bess- and George-like chums are staying while attending a Nancy Drew convention, the gals draw on the spirit of the titian-haired detective to crack the case. Not a Girl Detective is giddily informed by facts and trivia from the Drew canon. At one point, Cece and her chums refuse some sample pots of lip gloss, remembering the lesson of Nancy #23, The Mystery of the Tolling Bell: "Complimentary makeup never looks good, especially when applied by a gypsy pushing a cart."
Color Me Local
Local color -- and I don't mean pink -- is the big selling point of two other chick lit mysts. Sofie Metropolis (Forge, $21.95), the second novel of a series by "Tori Carrington" (the husband-and-wife romance-writing team of Lori and Tony Karayianni), takes place in the heavily Greek neighborhood of Astoria, Queens. Sofie is a young woman scorned turned private eye. Sofie canceled her "big, fat, Greek wedding" at the last minute when she discovered her groom swapping the souvlaki with her maid of honor. Throughout a mild screwball farce that involves the neighborhood vampire, a missing dog and a hunky-but-aloof Australian bounty hunter, Sofie tries to navigate between the claims of community and her own faint vision of independent gal-hood.
Murder of a Smart Cookie (Signet; paperback, $6.99), by Denise Swanson, is the latest in the Scrumble River series of mystery novels. School psychologist Skye Denison is enlisted by her uncle, the mayor, to organize the miles-long First Annual Route 66 Yard Sale. Predictably, the event brings out all manner of Southern Gothic zanies -- including the slutty mother of Skye's funeral home director boyfriend (who organizes a bikini bowl-a-thon) and at least one shifty character with bloodshed, rather than bargains, in mind. Scrumble River and its denizens are diverting enough, but the chic lit myst doesn't transplant well to the countryside. Like the ubiquitous pink high heels on their covers, these books need the hard surfaces of city life to make them click. *
Maureen Corrigan, the book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air," teaches literature at Georgetown University.