Friday, September 6, 2013

God Help the Girl

There's a distinct difference between "historical fiction" and "period fiction," at least in my mind. "Historical fiction" deals more with ties to the direct historical elements within the context of known chronological time (ie. having a book told from the point of view of a historically-iconic persona, or involved in important historical events), like I just read in Katherine Longshore's Gilt and Tarnish (which I just finished and will be talking about soon!). "Period fiction," however, deals more within conjunction to a time period, without retaining more concrete ties to fact, more than fiction, like The Girl Is Murder series from Kathryn Miller Haines. 

The books follow fifteen-year-old Iris Anderson, as she assists her father in his ace private eye detective business, during the early years of World War II. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor left her father without a leg, and her mother's suicide left her family without any support system, Iris is forced to move from the Upper East Side to the Lower, from a posh public school to P.S. 108, and that's only the start of her troubles.Through her search for clues, she breaks out of the prim and proper, and into a world filled not only the cheating husbands her father tails, but murderers, Nazis, and the seedy underworld of '40s New York. 

There's an additional difference between "historical" and "period" fiction on the part of the reader, one that was highlighted in this series. While in historical fiction, you have to level some kind of an assumption that the author has done their research (lest they incur the wrath of history-nerd readers who actually know what they should be reading about), with period fiction, there is no such reassurance that we won't wind up with anything anachronistic or out-of-place. For a while, this series worried me, being that the 1940s and wartime aren't really discussed outside of the American Girl canon of novels (Molly, my favorite). 

That unique element of the time period is what initially drew me to the novel, being that the '30s and '40s were some of the most interesting periods in American History to me, and it was such a departure from the influx of Roaring '20s YA we've been seeing recently. I feel that the time period was halfheartedly established, and there should have been a little more of an ambiance and mood to the novel. You are, after all, talking about an iconic stock character: the hard-boiled, fast-talking 1940s ace detective, only transplanted into the body of a high school girl. The avenues for successfully pursuing this type of feel would be either making it into that hyper-stylized noir, or an ultra-realistic period drama. Instead, what we mostly got were kitschy slang phrases bantered around with few descriptions of setting, appearance, etc. and little-to-no distinct style. 

The plot was a little on the murky side, as well. Especially in The Girl is Trouble, where the unanswered questions - on both the part of the narrator, and the reader - came aplenty. In some ways, this was rightfully so, because the mystery was one of the puzzle-like variety; unfortunately, not like the shiny, well-fitted, just-out-the-box variety, but like the kind you find in quaint, off-the-beaten-path cafes with low-lighting and spaced-out tables, that usually have half the board missing and the rest miserably chewed up by a long-gone dog. It was old and worn with antiquated plot points, it was holey with questions that were answered by convenience, it was unnecessarily confusing due to the fact that Iris just wouldn't stop jumping to conclusions, and at the end of it all, I still didn't know entirely what I was looking at. It was only when told what I was supposed to be seeing - courtesy of a wrap-up on the part of Iris, her father, and her Uncle Adam (also a detective) - that I got the picture. 

(I consider the first in the series to be much, much better, so I'm tempted to say that this is just a part of the natural "sophomore novel slump," but I don't know.) 

I appreciated the characters, which all had their own individual flaws and functions, and weren't pure products of stock. They didn't act like much less than stock characters - ie. they never did anything that unexpected, their actions were pretty predictable - but at least they all had definable, distinct, personalities and traits that made them unique. Also, the stakes were higher and the suspense more forceful than would be expected, as well, and I love, love, love fast-moving plots in YA. These were what the series did really right, and I appreciated that. 

For fans of 1940s detective movies, wartime intrigue, and simplified story-telling that's big on suspense, read this book. But if you're a mystery enthusiast with a good knowledge of how the game works, without patience in waiting out less-than-efficient story lines, maybe sit this one out. 

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