Jacqueline Kirby, assistant head librarian at Coldwater College, is fed up with life in Nebraska, and heads to New York for a bit of a change, to revisit old haunts, and to attend a convention of historical romance writers organised by the notorious Hattie Foster, top agent. At the conference are authors, would-be authors, agents, fans, publishers, a tabloid journalist, Dubretta Duberstein, who seems to have a special reason for disliking Hattie, and several activists, including Betsy Markham, who is an old friend of Jacqueline’s.
At the conference dinner, Dubretta, who had a bad heart, collapses and dies, and Jacqueline thinks there is something suspicious about her death. Lieutenant O’Brien, who knew Dubretta, isn’t at first inclined to take Jacqueline seriously, but he’s a competent and thorough detective, and the two later work together, particularly after the popular writer, Valerie Valentine (Hattie’s most valuable property), claims that she was the intended target and is in fear of her life. Also trying to lend a hand is James Whittier, head of English at Coldwater and Jacqueline’s sort-of boyfriend.
I don’t want to reveal too much for fear of spoilers, but Jacqueline discovers that not all is as it seems, and nearly all Hattie’s writers are hiding some sort of secret. Peters has a lot of fun with the convention, spoofing “old-school” romance novels and their writers, and the clichés spouted by Hattie, in particular. She writes with a light touch and Jacqueline observes with a cynical and sardonic eye. Despite the humour, Peters doesn’t let the reader forget that murder is serious, and the genuine concern Jacqueline feels for the intense and rather repulsive Laurie Schellhammer, Valentine’s most ardent fan, is well-conveyed.
Peters, while poking fun at the genre, also says a lot about its narrative conventions at the time (1984):
“…But you seem to be possessed of a reasonable degree of taste and intelligence. Doesn’t the image of woman as willing victim featured in books of this kind disturb you?”
Before Sue could reply, the lady in mink, who had been eavesdropping, exclaimed vehemently, “Now I do agree with you wholeheartedly. I never allow my heroines to be exploited. They are independent, sexually liberated women who control their own destinies.”
An animated discussion followed. All the authors at the table agreed with the speaker in principle and in practice. Their heroines were all independent and sexually liberated. They admitted, however, that lesser writers sometimes fell into this trap.
Jacqueline was not sufficiently familiar with the genre to be certain that the speakers were lying, but she caught strong echoes of “methinks she doth protest too much.”
(pages 24-25, 2011 Harper paperback)
Mrs Kirby is the heroine of three other detective novels, The Seventh Sinner (1972), The Murders of Richard III (1974), and Naked Once More (1989). This is the third in the series (though Jacqueline does not appear to have aged since the previous book), and allusion is made to her two previous cases, which Hattie realises, and tries to utilise Jacqueline’s reputation for her own ends. She’s an entertaining character, middle-aged but attractive, intelligent and well-educated, with a sense of humour and with almost no self-consciousness. She spoofs the “romance writer ideal” which Hattie is trying to push by rigging herself out in extraordinarily over the top outfits, and ends the book by attempting to write a romance herself.
It’s an amusing crime novel, with a realistic plot and entertaining characters and dialogue.
Published by: HarperCollins (1984)