" Young man, would you please some with us?" should read 'come' with us.
The Cracked Spine was an intriguing adult fiction story which I got for advance review purposes. I initially enjoyed it, but as it went on and on, it wore me down and I ended up not liking it, mostly because of the protagonist and the complete lack of rationale for most of her actions. The curious thing about this that there was no blurb available for this novel. It was quite literally a mystery book, and normally I wouldn't pick one up for review without having some idea of what's in it.
This one intrigued me from the cover and the title, and I thought it was a murder mystery set in a book shop. Which person who loves books doesn't like the idea of a novel involving books? Of course not every such novel ends up being even so much as readable let alone lovable. As I began reading this one, it seemed more like some sort of supernatural or sci-fi novel than a murder mystery, but then a murder occurred (and it wasn't in the book shop). In short, it was all over the place.
I failed to grasp the point of bringing the supernatural into the story considering that it played no part in the plot. Additionally, Delaney is supposed to be able to "hear" books speak, and several times we get a hint of her "hearing" a quote from a book - usually Shakespeare - but this made absolutely no sense whatsoever. It played no part in the plot or in resolving the mystery, so I simply didn’t get this at all. It just made her seem in need of some serious psychiatric attention.
So Delaney Nichols is not in Kansas anymore. She's in Edinburgh, Scotland, to take up her new job at The Cracked Spine, an old, small, dusty, disorganized book shop on a narrow street in Edinburgh, Scotland. The shop is odd, but the main character is more odd. She uproots herself from Kansas and flies to start a new job in this obscure little shop in Edinburgh. We're given absolutely no reason whatsoever to justify this flight. Delaney is decidedly odd and not in a good way.
Consider the cataloging system she apparently employs: "It was more than the fact that it might be in the P's for parody. It wouldn't have been that simple, I decided." Who catalogs books by putting them in 'P' for parody? A chain book shop might have a humor section where parody would be, but it would be alphabetized by author. In a disorganized antiquarian shop? And a specific section on parody? No. It was just weird and took me out of my suspension of disbelief for a second or two. A bookstore like this wouldn't have survived with so many employees and so little movement of books. No one actually seems to do any work there.
So ween granting that the owner is old and quirky this cataloging seemed off. It seemed even more off that Delaney would think this way - but then we never do discover why she was hired. The shop itself has too many quirks. On her first brief visit, she meets a young man dressed in Shakespearean costume, who introduces himself as Hamlet. He says he's acting in a local production of Macbeth, although he's too superstitious to use the play's name. Fie on that, say I! Lay on, Macduff, and damned be him who first cries "What if Macduff doesn't want you laying on him?" Well, the rest is silence, so let's not paint the lily.
I digress, but there's an on-line source which purports to correct misspoken Shakespeare, and one of the misquotes is from Richard 3.0, where the titular character says, "Now is the winter of our discontent...." He goes on to finish his assertion by adding, "...made glorious summer by this son of York," except that corrections page itself is incorrect in that it says, "sun of York"! I really enjoyed the irony. Shakespeare is often misunderstood because there's been many a year slipped 'twixt bard and modern lip. Even words we still use have changed meaning.
Moreover, they had a different way of speaking four hundred years ago - of pronouncing words, as the Crystals demonstrate at the Globe Theatre. It puts a whole new sense and sensibility on some of the seemingly obscure things he wrote and the rhymes he apparently didn't make. When you pronounce "Nothing" as "Noting", for example, then "Much Ado About Noting" makes sense given how often that last word is used in the introductory scenes, and how important the act of noting events accurately becomes during the rest of the play.
Do I really digress? Not so much, because part of this mystery centers on the location of a Shakespeare first folio - a new one that has been surreptitiously discovered, the existence of which known only to a local cadre of wealthy friends in Edinburgh. The fact that there are many so-called 'first' folios rather robs them of their cardinal precedence, doesn't it? I mean, only one can actually really be the first. The rest are not to be. That is their destiny.
Edwin, the owner of the book shop where Delaney now works, bought this new folio (maybe the last first folio!), and inexplicably left it in the charge of his previously ne'er do well sister, who inexplicably hides it in a place where it’s inexplicably discovered. Now she's been murdered, no one knows where the folio is, nor why she was murdered. Was it an unsavory character from her addled past, or is it someone who was looking for the folio? And why is Edwin hindering the police investigation into his sister's murder by withholding information about it from the police? Was the folio stolen and if so why would his reputation - or preserving hers - be more important than tracking down his sister's killer? None of this makes sense, nor is it explained.
I found it funny that chapter three ended with a 'five' leading into chapter four: "I didn't wake again until my alarm sounded the next morning at five." But that's just me. It felt like a countdown to something wicked this way coming. It wasn't. It would have been hilarious if it could have somehow been continued, but it was not to be. That's the question?!
As you may have gathered, I had some problems with this novel, the first of which was why the main character suddenly started acting like a detective. She knew no one here. She had nothing to prove and no vested interest in any piece of property or person, yet she immediately and suddenly started acting like a private investigator for no reason. She neglected the job she was hired to do, and pursued the case like a pit bull, yet no one says a word about her behavior! Worse than this, she's unaccountably aggressive and rude without having any reason to be so. It just felt wrong. If you're going to have a character do this, then please at least equip her with a rational motivation for out-of-character behavior! Give her something which spurs her into it - don’t just have her running all over for no reason at all!
In general, the writing was very good from a technical perspective, and for the most part it was readable, despite it being first person PoV. Some authors can do that voice without it being nauseating to read, but this created problems for the author, and it shows. When you write like this you can only tell the story from the PoV of the narrator. If something happens elsewhere, she doesn't know about it and we're set forth upon a sea of details, which by depressing, rends us. It lets slip the dogs of "Bah!" It's no better than a flashback or an info-dump which makes me want to shuffle off the awful tome. As it happens I made it to the end, and discovered it to be a total let-down. The plotting was less than satisfying.
One example was when the police came looking for Edwin, the owner of the book shop and the brother of the murder victim, Jenny. Instead of going to his home, where he might reasonably be expected to be - and in fact where he was - the police came to the book shop though there was no reason whatsoever for them to visit it. Another example is when Delaney goes with Hamlet to the police station. There's no reason for her to do this! Indeed, she's supposed to be working, yet off she goes of her own volition, accompanying one of the shop's part time employees - a teenager she barely knows - without so much as a by-your-leash. For me, her behavior turned her into an insufferable busybody, but the take-home lesson from this is that the author forced herself into adopting this unnatural and annoying behavior for her characters because of her choice of first person voice - the most limiting and restrictive voice you can choose. It felt so unnatural that it took me out of the story. Again.
The only explanation for this behavior is nothing to do with the plot and everything to do with Delaney having to witness things in order to derive something from what she sees or hears. The shop visit could have been explained by having the police say he wasn't at home which is why they were there at the shop, but this didn't happen. It was also weird in that when the two police detectives arrive, they turn out to be a chief inspector and an inspector rather than the usual Inspector and sergeant. Why did such a relatively high ranking officer show up on a murder investigation? There's no explanation offered, so what we're left with is the surmise that this is a case of special treatment because rich people were involved, which speaks very badly of the Scots police force. Did the author intend this insult? Who know - maybe they do things differently in Scotland but this seemed odd to me.
There was some genderist phrasing in the novel, too, such as when Delaney encounters the man who is quite obviously destined to be her male interest: Tom from the pub which shares Delaney's name and is across the street from the book shop. "He was beautiful, but in a manly, Scottish kind of way." What exactly does that mean?! A guy can't be beautiful without it being qualified lest it impugn his manliness or imply that he's gay? Scots manliness is different from other varieties of manliness?! I have no idea what it meant, but it felt like an insult.
Personally I'd prefer it if the character wasn't described in such shallow terms at all whether it's male or female, but if you're going to do it, don't insult people further by trying to make 'beautiful' a word inextricably tied to femininity which consequently requires qualifying if it's used elsewhere. It's like saying, "The castle was beautiful, in an impregnable, granitey kind of way...". Consider the inverse: "She was beautiful, but in a feminine, Scottish kind of way." Does that make any better sense? I think it doesn't. I think it sounds like an insult to Scots women.
A big disappointment was that chances to present Delaney as a strong female character seemed to be frittered away, as in when I read: "I'd had an issue with the warm water in my shower, but Elias said he'd fix it...". Immediately we have to go to a guy. What would be wrong with saying the same thing, but letting Delaney fix it: "I'd had an issue with the warm water in my shower, but I figured it out and fixed it." It's just as easy to write and doesn't make your main female character dependent on some guy for no good reason at all. It supports your position of having her figuring out a crime, because she's showing that she's independent and a self-starter. But Delaney really wasn't. She was never in any peril. She was totally dependent upon men throughout the story, and everything magically fell into place for her: a place for her to stay, free transportation whenever she needed it by means of the friendly cabbie trope, everyone being nice and friendly, and helpful. She wasn't quite a Mary Sue (although she was close), but the plot itself definitely was a Mary Sue.
One issue I could definitely relate to was in how much of the Scots accent a writer should convey in the writing. I wrestled with this problem in my own novel Saurus. Fortunately only one of the main characters was Scots in my case, so I didn't have to have everyone speaking like that all the time, but I can sympathize with a writer who does find themselves in such a position. Do we go full-tilt and risk readers becoming annoyed with the constant 'tae' in place of 'to' and so on? Do we start out full-tilt and slowly reduce the incidence, so the reader only has to deal with it for a short time before it becomes embedded and hopefully they won't notice as we reduce or even eliminate it? Do we only put a hint, or do we simply confine ourselves to referring to the accent once in a while, but not actually depicting it by changing spelling? This author went the 'changed spelling' rout and it became a bit tiresome. It was definitely a lesson for me.
In addition to the changed spelling, there are actual words employed, such as 'ken' which means 'knowledge'. It can be equated with 'know'. Ken is actually a verb, and it has tenses, which is what made this sentence wrong: " Edwin certainly ken what he was doing." That's like writing " Edwin certainly know what he was doing." It should have been "Edwin certainly kenned what he was doing," or "Edwin certainly kent what he was doing." These are issues that most people might not notice (or even care about!) unless they're actually Scots, but for a writer, they're worth keeping in mind. Talking of which, I didn't get this sentence: "Dinnae mynd a bit". I don't know how we're expected to pronounced 'mynd' - is it just the same as the regular spelling, 'mind' or is it supposed to be pronounced 'mean-d' or 'mein-d' or something like? If the pronunciation isn't any different, why misspell it? If it is, why not spell it phonetically?
A big concern I had with this novel was over the stereotyping of the Scots. There's a lot of talk in the novel about drinking and whisky and while, in the UK, Scotland does consume more alcohol per capita than the rest of the country, on a global scale, the Scots fare poorly when it comes to consuming whisky: they're beaten by France, Uruguay, the USA, Australia, Spain, and the UAE. In overall alcohol consumption they're eighth in the world, and when it comes to drinking Scotch, they're not even in the top ten! So the stereotype doesn't hold.
In the final analysis, I found I really didn’t like Delaney and had no desire to read more about her in a series. She’s more of an idiot than an investigator. First of all, as I mentioned, there’s no rational reason offered for why (other than being a royal mile of a busybody) she gets involved in any of this. There’s no justification for her repeatedly skipping work to investigate, and it’s completely ridiculous that she appears to be going out of her way to solve the crime on the one hand, whilst at the same time, she’s actively hampering the police investigation on the other by withholding evidence!
She finds important evidence in Jenny’s apartment in form of torn-up bits of paper with writing on it, distributed in several locations, yet she fails to inform Edwin (even though he’s in the apartment when she finds it). She also fails to inform police of this. The resolution of this is, in the end, unimportant, but when it’s explained, it's given to us wrongly! We're told that one (incomplete) section of it reads, "ut tell him I’m so", yet when it becomes clear what this is, there is no word with 'ut' in it.
Delaney outright lies to the police about the existence of the missing first folio, even though Edwin had said it was okay to tell, if the police asked. In short, she’s actively tripping-up the investigation instead of helping it. A nicer resolution to this tale would have been to have her charged with obstructing a police investigation, but she isn’t, I'm sorry to report. If this had been set-up as a situation where we knew one of the police offers was somehow involved, then her behavior would be understandable, but this is never intimated. In short, it felt to me like she’s simply going through actions by rote, adhering to a regimented sequence to which she held tightly regardless of how stupid or silly it made her appear in doing so. I don’t have time for a character like that and I can’t recommend this novel.