Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Cemetery Street

First The Graveyard Book, now Cemetery Street. Sounds like I'm going goth. I do have a fascination with cemeteries, but trust me. It is purely coincidental that I'm doing these two reviews back to back.

I wrote a critical essay about Cemetery Street as part of my graduate studies at Vermont College. I've included the bulk of it here.

Magic Ants to the Rescue
Writing a mystery’s conclusion may be the most difficult part. So much room exists for error, offering so many ways to disappoint the reader. A writer on deadline may scramble to wrap up the plot quickly to get the book sent to the publisher. A desperate writer will search for something, anything to solve her dilemma. Unfortunately, this can often result in rash decisions. If the author calls upon the reader to stretch too far in suspending their disbelief, the reader will feel like time was wasted on this protagonist. The reader thought this was a hero’s journey to solve the mystery and set the world right. But without careful attention, this journey may lead to nowhere. Hammering the last nail into her protagonist’s heroic coffin, Brenda Seabrooke summons up a deus ex machina to wrap up Cemetery Street.

In a fantastic twist, Seabrooke robs Courtney of the apprehension of her kidnappers. The publicity-seeking, demon-impersonating criminals who killed her brother’s puppy and locked her in a crypt are done in by organized insects. Courtney tracks down the kidnappers and chases them to their van, just as it pulls away.

The van’s doors opened at the same time. Dr. White rolled out one side, Leindorf the other. They rolled in the parking lot and screamed as they tore at their clothes (Seabrooke 184).

We learn shortly that “very angry ants” are the cause of all this rolling and screaming. As explanation, Seabrooke offers Bucky’s Halloween bag tossed in the back of the van.

Giant ants may work for Indiana Jones in South America, but Seabrooke made absolutely no mention of ants at any point in the previous 184 pages. If ants had spoiled the picnic, if Courtney had been bitten by an ant or if she had taken time to watch ants travel, then this might have had a whisper of credibility. But, as presented, it is completely fantastical.

Others may argue that this ending works. Perhaps Seabrooke was trying to counteract the darkness of the animal murder and the suspected Satanism in the book with a lighthearted approach to catching the criminals. At least a few notable people must have taken this position, Cemetery Street is a current finalist for the Edgar Award for Best Mystery presented by the Mystery Writers of America.

The first half of Cemetery Street is a tightly woven web of mystery and suspense. The reader is enchanted by Courtney, we sympathize with the challenges she faces and root for her success from the beginning. We worry about the impending danger that seems to be headed her way. But we’re confident that her wit and ingenuity will ultimately lead to justice prevailing.

We will never know if Courtney was brave enough and resourceful enough to foil the criminals because Seabrooke snatches the opportunity away from her. When writers resort to outlandish means to resolve the situation, it undermines the entire book. Although the language, character development and pacing of Cemetery Street was excellent, this disappointing ending will be the thing readers remember most about it.

Here's a book trailer for it.