Joining the World of Missing Persons

Honor Kills
Nanci Rathbun

When I was young, I knew two things about Milwaukee: Schlitz was the beer that had made it famous and it was the town the Happy Days/Laverne & Shirley gang called home.

Later, when I began traveling to points west for business, I discovered Midwest Express airlines and its Milwaukee hub. I’m still uncertain whether the allure was the fresh-baked cookies on each leg of the flight or the airport’s antiquarian bookstore, conveniently located just outside pre-TSA security, where you never knew what treasure you’d find between flights.

Given how planes recirculate air and my ever-present weakness for a baked good,  though, the cookies probably win.

At the heart of those food and book discoveries sat an experiment and a discovery. The corporate travel agency thought I was a bit nuts to keep traveling through MKE, even though I had also discovered how to avoid O’Hare. Today, I’m going to focus on the latest installment in my screen-based reading experiment. I’ll also touch on related marketing issues. More than anyone I forget this space started out as a venue for dissecting marketing missteps as I saw them.

Let’s begin with the basic fact that publishers,  bless their literary hearts, are forever trying to distract us from: a book is a product. Its value lies in the fact that the acquiring company believes they can earn more selling copies than they pay the author for the original manuscript. Everything else–even the occasional work of art–is just smoke and mirrors obscuring the economics of the situation.

When publishers gather, as they did at the World Publishing Expo in 2013, they are indistinguishable from any other business group.

Yes, the details are more complicated than that but there’s value in stripping them out. Some businesses are fiendishly complex. Some are not what they seem. And some sit atop the most simple of premises. In the crime fiction aisles, many authors are peddling products, too.

Consider the present volume. It has a snappy, two-word title. It is, in fact, the third installment in a series, each of which bears a similar two-word title, the second word of which is always “kills.” The book was offered free on Apple Books.

A book series, I’d submit, is just an industry-specific variant of a line extension.  The basic product is the same with some changes between the items in the line. In that way, it’s not terribly different from the three types of Cheerios and two types of Oreos sitting in my kitchen. The ‘free’ book is a form of sampling, no different really than the nibbles being offered at Costco on a Saturday. Even the premise is the same. If enough of the people who sample the product go on to buy more, it’s a viable business.

What then of the product at hand? And why give away the third in the series? Why not the first? I have suspicions about the order. Other series samplers have offered the first volume, so I’d say selecting the optimum volume to give away is subject to testing. In the present case, though,  the book references just enough former adventures to suggest the aim is to spur a subsequent purchase.

Waterfront property is prime real estate almost everywhere, even on a Great Lake.

This book’s cover helpfully states “An Angelina Bonaparte Mystery.” Angelina must be an established character, right? Or is it her surname that smacks of the familiar? Any good series needs a reassuringly familiar character just different enough to stick in our memories. Here’s Angelina’s story: she’s a middle-aged (probably in her late 50s) divorcée, a grandmother who runs a one-woman investigative agency. She does, though, have a sidekick, Bobbie, a young gay intern working his way towards full partner status.

Angelina lives in a lakefront condo,  has a thing for wearing fancy underclothes and dates a homicide detective. Oh, and her father, Pascuale, is Don emeritus of the Milwaukee mob. See, just enough variation for Angelina to be her own woman but still familiar to fans of  Kinsey Milhone.

Yet somehow, Angelina seems less authentic. Kinsey Milhone may be a grind, but she was a beat cop. The offbeat character in her life is her landlord. By contrast, Angelina feels like the product of a focus group. I can practically hear participants responding to the request to finish a sentence that begins, “I’d like Angelina more if she ….”

I don’t make these things up. As far back as 1914, Schlitz was claiming that the city would be unknown wothout it.

We find Angelina learning that an old case may be resolved. Years ago, she was hired to find a man who disappeared. A schoolteacher, he just left the building at lunch one day and was never seen again by his family, friends or collegaues. Angellina is not a Corleone. Her heart breaks for her client and over the years she tracks promising leads even as the trail grows colder and colder.

Then, suddenly, the missing man’s obituary appears in the Stevens Point newspaper. Case closed, except that the manner of death raises more questions than it answers. Angelina meets with the local attorney who filed the obit and starts sleuthing. The facts don’t add up. She calls in a hired gun, Spider Mulcahey.

This is the point where believability is totally sacrificed. Spider, who appears to operate some sort of ultra-high-end security business, lives on a farm west of the city. A family man, he has a past. Well, more of a present, actually,  full of gauzy details. He also has a saferoom crammed with NSA-level electronics, more online access than TikTok and deep knowledge of the darkest corners of the internet. Oh, and he’s also a paramilitary.

All these incongruous details serve the same purpose as a magician’s feint, they distract us from a plot that telegraphs its outcome long before the digital pages run out. That’s one reason I’m not going to say too much more about the storyline.

Every farmhouse has one of these and an armory, doesn’t it?

I suppose there is a market for such material and the author would probably take umbrage with what I’ve said above. Yet the explanation for why I feel as I do appears in her self-penned bio. Her first career, she tells us, was as an IT project manager and her second is as a Congregationalist minister. She “bring[s] logic and planning” as well as “the importance of character and dialog” to her writing. She does, and it shows in the final, ahem, product.

There’s a familiar story about Raymond Chandler that distinguishes the great crime writers from the rest.  When Howard Hawks was filming The Big Sleephe reached a point where things didn’t line up. Try as they might, the screenwriters couldn’t square Chandler’s story in a way that would make sense on screen.

A no-nonsense guy himself, Hawks cabled Chandler demanding to know who killed the chauffeur.  The reply was worthy of Coolidge and stands for the ages: “No idea.”

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