Friday, February 23, 2024

Review: Fast Women, by Jennifer Crusie

Review: Fast Women, by Jennifer Crusie

by Rich Horton

Jennifer Crusie (real name Jennifer Smith) is a popular author of romance novels (with crime aspects). Her early career was as a teacher (in grade schools), and she has an MFA and taught in college and written criticism. She began writing category romances (i.e. from publishers like Harlequin) in the early '90s but broke out into general fiction in the later '90s.* Most of her books, at least after this switch, combine romance with mystery plots. In the past 20 years or so, most of her fiction has been collaborations, particularly with Bob Mayer.

I have read several of her novels in the past, but I hadn't read one in a while. I found Fast Women (2001) at a used book sale, and gave it to my wife, but after she finished it I figured it looked fun so I decided to read it too. 

The main character is Nell Dysart, whose husband left her, and who is looking for a job. She's in her early 40s, and after quitting college to marry, she worked as her husband's secretary/office manager -- and she likes working. She takes a temporary position with McKenna Investigations, a detective agency, and quickly brings her organizing skills to bear -- much to Gabe McKenna's displeasure, as he doesn't like change. I think all romance readers can see where that's going from (checking book) page 5. 

I said Nell is the main character, and that's true, but this novel is in many ways an ensemble book. Besides Nell and Gabe, there's Gabe's partner and cousin Riley, and Nell's best friend Suze, who is married to Jack Dysart, one of Gabe's most reliable clients. Add in Nell's other friend Margie, who was formerly married to Jack Dysart's former partner Stewart Ogilvie but is now living with Ogilvie and Dysart's accountant Budge. Plus Gabe's ex-wife Chloe, and their daughter Lu. And Nell's son Jase. Plus of course Marlene (a dachsund.) (I actually would have found a family tree for the characters very helpful!)

Nell learns quickly that her predecessor, Lynnie, had been embezzling from the McKennas. Plus Jack Dysart gets a blackmail call. And there's a mystery about Gabe's father Patrick, who had died a couple decades before, leaving Gabe the agency and a Porsche 911. Plus there are a variety of regular clients, all of whom seem serial adulterers or spouses of adulterers, and are given names like the Quarterly Report and the Hot Lunch. And a lot of strange things start to happen, including Nell stealing a dog, diamonds turning up in various places, dead people being found in freezers, and arson. And Nell, Suze, and Margie continually debate their love lives -- they all need a change, largely (it seems to me) because they got married way too young. Plus they buy a lot of china. 

It's a fun novel, but not a great one. The best part by far is the dialogue -- fast, witty, snarky. There's some sex, and some action. The crime plot, I thought, was a bit overextended, a bit too complicated, with some really gruesome stuff happening that oddly doesn't hit home enough. And the resolution was slightly labored. It was mostly a skeleton (indeed, a skeleton in a closet) on which to hang the romance plot. The romances are mostly about women in their 30s and 40s (with one exception) and that's kind of refreshing, and there is a lot of meditation on how to establish a mature and equitable relationship with your spouse. In the end, then -- enjoyable but quite light.

(*I say general fiction but more as a marketing distinction -- her novels remained similar in style and focus, though they got much longer and were published in hardcover.)

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