A year ago, give or take only a few days, I reviewed the first book in Robin Spano’s Clare Vengel Undercover series, Dead Politician Society. The verdict in a nutshell: a fabulous cover design, a fun, engaging read, but wanted more from the wonderfully shameless protagonist, Clare.
Death Plays Poker (love the title and this cover is even better!) is the second book in the series, in which Clare returns as an undercover cop. This time she plays Tiffany, a trust-fund princess who’s signed up to play in a poker tournament during which the players keep dying, strangled by someone humorously labelled the Poker Choker.
Though Robin knows the game well (it’s one of her favourite pastimes!), Clare knows little, mainly what she’s read in books and watched on shows. She manages to play her way through, though, taking a few pointers from Mickey, one of the better players in the tournament. No doubt it’s Clare’s tenacity that keeps her going, because Tiffany, who wears pink, gets her nails done, hails cabs, and sports expensive clothes, couldn’t be any less like Clare, whose personality is more Lisbeth Salander than Nancy Drew, and whose passion (and skill), while she chose being a cop over owning her own garage, lies in fixing vehicles, particularly motorcycles, which she also loves to ride. Despite the difference, Clare manages to pull the wool over the eyes of most of the characters.
Like DPS, Death Plays Poker uses alternating points of view (there are 4) and short chapters (106!), sometimes only a page and a half in length. Together with Robin’s skilful planning, the technique, which also makes it somewhat difficult to pin down the peripheral characters, works well in preventing us from figuring out who the killer is, right to the very end.
I mentioned in the DPS review that Robin’s dialogue was very well done, and again, it was the first thing I noted for DPP: dialogue is excellent, very natural, funny, and compelling. I admired this throughout the novel. Effective dialogue can be difficult for authors to pull off—too often it’s stilted or contrived—and Robin certainly has no issue. It demonstrates her understanding as a writer in terms of letting her characters speak for themselves as well as letting herself write freely and have fun in doing so.
I also noted in DPS that the deaths seemed rather incidental, not taken very seriously, and about this novel, I felt the same way—that is to say, I didn’t grieve anyone’s death, nor, really, did the majority of the characters. Whereas this was a problem for me with the first book, I realize now that the deaths are not meant to be the focus; we’re not meant to linger on them. They’re all the same, death by strangling, and there aren’t any tells to speak of. Instead, to try and determine who the murderer is, we need to be concerned with the characters’ behaviour. The lack of any significant reaction on the characters’ parts keeps us, as well as Clare and others, guessing, much like in the game of poker itself.
And here is where my review gets more interesting. I wrote six more sizeable paragraphs about this book, pretty much expressing my disappointment in Clare as an undercover cop. When I finished, I felt conflicted about posting. It had taken me six hours as it was to write what I had. I thought I’d written a fair review, but at the same time, I felt my aggressive points might be unfounded—perhaps I had misunderstood Robin’s intentions for the series, for this book in particular, and for Clare. I wondered if this were true because, as I’ve said, the writing is good. It’s a little unusual for good writing to be simultaneously disappointing. Also, it was unsettling that no one else had expressed what I did. What then, I thought, was I missing?
So I emailed Robin. I asked her: “What kind of book, what kind of series do you intend? What did you have in mind while writing? How do you see Clare? What kind of mystery did you set out to write?”
Her answer filled me with relief that I hadn’t posted the review before asking her, because it confirmed that I had indeed missed the mark. She actually intended everything I had had an issue with. She wrote back (without having seen my initial review):
All right, so with this book, with this series, my first goal is to entertain, to write a fun story where people want to turn the pages, want to spend time with the characters, and leave wanting to know more about Clare.
While it is in the mystery genre, it’s not typical because I’m not trying to portray the hero as strong, knowledgeable, or savvy, but rather as a young, flawed human who’s trying to hold her own, who’s trying to do her best, but whose personality keeps tripping her up. She makes enough of the connections to solve the case that she keeps her job. But (also not typical of the mystery genre) flukes count. I think they count in life, I think luck plays a massive role in where we end up. (I think hard work and the right mindset does, too, but so often in mysteries, it’s all about making sure the hero is the guy who knows what he’s doing.)
The arc of the series, for me, is about pushing Clare forward, sometimes against her will, into slowly becoming a strong, compassionate woman. She will get good at this job, she’ll get visibly better in each book, but she’s going to grow like a real human would—through trial and error. The chip on her shoulder will slowly erode, she’ll understand that it might make more sense to try to get along with authority instead of resist it for its own sake. … A lot of readers hear Clare’s language and watch her sleep around and drive a motorcycle and assume that makes her kickass. To me, she’s fragile and sweet, in an odd way. Her shell is tough precisely because she isn’t, and as the series moves forward, she’ll be moving toward a softer exterior and a stronger interior.
That said, my main goal with this series will remain to entertain. I want to keep writing fun, fast fiction, but the more depth I can get into the characters as I move along, the happier I’ll be.
Aha! So despite all the advertising and endorsements that plug Clare as some savvy, kick-ass cop, that’s not really what Robin has in mind. And my 541 words I’ve now deleted here, which were laden with questions and which accused Clare of being someone who seriously needed to prove herself as an undercover cop, were suddenly moot. I was, in fact, asking for Clare and the book to be something they were not intended to be, and that, in my opinion, is a major flaw in a reviewer. Never mind, then, how long it took me to forge those words. Delete, delete, delete.
In addition, Robin made an extremely important distinction for me between undercover cop and detective, which is more what I was expecting Clare to be, the person who solved the case rather than an informant:
The reason she’s an undercover cop and not a detective is precisely that—she’s not the one who’s supposed to solve the case; her role is to immerse herself and gather information that helps the detectives solve the case. The fact that she’s the heroine of the book compels me to have her make some of those “detection” connections anyway. But professionally, she can be completely successful in the role if all she does is pass information along to the higher authorities (i.e., she can keep her job, even get promoted).
The emails between Robin and me helped immensely, and I hope that when I read the next books in the series, I’ll go in with a deeper understanding of Clare. As it is, I feel I should probably read Death Plays Poker again.
And yet, I can’t totally change my tune. Yeah, I still want Clare to be a McG Charlie’s Angel kind of cop, and that’s not going to happen, but still, I never really felt any urgency on Clare’s part to help figure out who the murderer was in order to prevent more deaths. While it is true that she has some skill in blending in and getting the characters to trust her, in reading people and connecting with the suspects, I wasn’t sure she was progressing with the case, which is why I was surprised by the ending, why it seemed a little abrupt. Remember when your math teacher asked you to show how to got to your answer? It’s like that: the conclusion was a surprise because we weren’t really shown Clare’s hunches or her progress in figuring out who the Poker Choker was.
Also, I still, even after the clarification, want more evident development on Clare’s part, more proof of what Robin claims in terms of Clare’s progress in becoming that “strong, compassionate woman.” She must also progress as a professional. What makes Clare in DPP different from Clare in DPS? I’m not certain.
To be sure, I’m not asking for Clare to become Miss Marple: I totally realize this series is meant to be sexy and fun: the cover hints at it, as do the nicknamed murderer and the humour in general. And it is sexy and fun! But I am still asking for Clare to reflect the praise she receives from colleagues. There’s no doubt she can hold her own in a swearing contest or drink us under the table or fix a motorcycle blindfolded. I love these things about her, as many do. But none of that makes her a cop, and these books, while perhaps leaning more toward fiction than traditional mystery, nevertheless contain a case to be solved and she’s the protagonist. Until Clare shows me more what she can actually do with what skills she has and should be acquiring, until she truly at least begins to show her mettle, I’m not convinced by the praise she receives or by her advancements.
In essence, what I’m saying is this: the writing in Death Plays Poker is effective in terms of keeping us guessing “whodunit.” The characterization is good. The dialogue is superb. The short chapters make the book feel as though it’s moving at a nice pace—it was a breeze to read the 400-plus pages, which is more than I can say of Franzen—and the plot of DPP is well executed, though I want to see more character work in getting to the conclusion. In general, this novel does not fail! But I ask questions and I make demands because when an author writes well, you come to want more from her. With that, I look forward to seeing what Robin and Clare deliver in the third book. There is a significant change in store for Clare, and I’m curious to see how she handles both herself and her job.
I can’t neglect to mention the cool promotions that Robin and the crew at ECW Press dreamed up for this book. DPP online poker games, low-priced ebooks ($2.99!), a free deck of Death Plays Poker-themed playing cards in reward for an honest review…these are only a few of the awesome ways Death Plays Poker has been getting its name out there. If there’s anyone who knows how to promote a book, it’s Robin.
Special thank you to Robin, for her discussion and support, and to Jen Knoch at ECW Press, who sent me my finished copy for review.