Zebra, $5.99, ISBN 0-8217-7518-9
Historical Mystery, 2003
As a real sequel to Strong Spirits, Fine Spirits continues the adventures of fake clairvoyant Daisy Gumm Majesty in the 1920’s. You can read the review of Strong Spirits to learn more about Daisy, her crippled husband Billy, and how she got her reputation as a clairvoyant. I will say this though: Zebra is officially the most stupid publishing house in this world. By slotting this book under the romance label, it is actually mismarketing this cozy historical mystery series. If Alice Duncan’s nth attempt at escaping the midlist limbo doesn’t go too well, ask her to drop me a note and I’ll donate a few gallons of oil she can use to torch down the Zebra office. It’ll be on me. I may not be too fond of this author’s books in the past, but I hate to see an author’s career go chests-up because of some stupid publisher too busy examining its own bunghole to pay attention.
Anyway, in this book, Daisy is approached by rich dame Mrs Bissel. Mrs Bissel believes that there’s a ghost haunting her basement. Daisy finds empty cans of food and with a missing teenage girl in the neighborhood, it doesn’t take much for her to put two and two together. Next thing Daisy knows, she trying to keep the missing girl from being discovered by the cops. It’s not easy when the cop Sam Rotondo is always playing cards with Billy and Daisy’s father, and especially not when Daisy is also trying to save her crumbling marriage.
The best thing in this book is Alice Duncan’s startlingly powerful depiction of the heartbreaking relationship between Daisy and Billy. Billy, crippled and wheelchair-bound while being stricken with severe respiratory problems, is always at the brink of depression and he isn’t above lashing out at Daisy in his helpless despair. Daisy accepts Mrs Bissel as a customer because Mrs Bissel breeds pedigree doggies and she hopes a puppy will cheer Billy out of his blues. There is a really bitter kind of sweet reading about Daisy and Billy trying to piece together the tatters of their marriage even as both are plagued by guilt, insecurities, and often anger and exasperation at each other. With Daisy a woman who spends a lot of time catering to a husband who cannot be her husband emotionally and sexually, it is very easy to see where Daisy and Sam Rotondo are heading.
Indeed, Fine Spirits is already dropping not-too-subtle hints of Daisy becoming more and more confused by Sam as time passes. There’s a childish “Hate you! Hate you!” nature to Sam and Daisy’s relationship that doesn’t work, however. While I’m surprised that Alice Duncan, whose previous books are a genre in itself when it comes to redefining Too Stupid to Live, is able to craft a realistic and painful marriage in the crumbles in Daisy and Billy’s relationship, I can only hope the author can salvage Daisy and Sam without sacrificing all three characters – Sam, Billy, and Daisy – on the altar of Bad Plot Contrivances. I’m not confident, as I’ve read enough of this author’s books after all, but I’ll be more than happy to be proven wrong.
The mystery is pretty much on the lackluster side. The old Alice Duncan rears her ugly clown head more than once in painfully moronic moments such as the one where Daisy wonders whether it is a bear or a mountain lion hiding in Mrs Bissel’s basement. A bear, right – next Daisy will be telling me that PT Barnum is sneaking into people’s houses and hiding tigers and elephants in the closets to escape the IRS from repossessing everything. Sometimes the mystery here is so obvious that I find myself wondering just how stupid the characters have to be to take this long to piece things together.
Daisy is sometimes very unkind towards fools. Not that I blame her, as I generally can’t stand fools myself, but I think I should point out Daisy’s less-than-sweet moments to readers that prefer to avoid these kind of heroines. While the mystery is far from riveting, I however find myself engrossed in the characters that actually continue to grow and develop from their beginnings in Strong Spirits. I will be very interested to see where Alice Duncan will take Billy, Daisy, and Sam. As of now, Billy and Daisy are far more painful to read – and hence more interesting – than Daisy and Sam, whose reactions are more reminiscent of those argumentative kids in nursery schools. If the author does choose to take Sam and Daisy further, well, I’ll be very interested to see what she does next.