Monday, September 1, 2014

Stages of Grey by Clea Simon

Elmer is not happy at having his reading disturbed by a photographer.

 Reviewed by Jeanne

Graduate student Dulcie Schwartz is preoccupied as usual.  She’s still trying to solve the mystery of the identity of the anonymous author of The Ravages of Umbra, work on her thesis, teach her sections, and find out if her boyfriend Chris is a werewolf.  Her mentor, the ghost of her beloved cat Mr. Grey, has remained silent on the subject, though he does offer occasional life advice. It’s also a blustery winter in Boston (is there any other kind?) and the ice and snow make travel difficult, but it’s certainly a great atmosphere to be studying a gothic novel.  

Maybe a bit too perfect, as Dulcie is taken in by a bit of theatrics that has her believing she’s seen a man being dragged away by wolves. It’s a promotion for a new production of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” which features some rather unconventional staging—think Roman deities and a disco beat. Under the circumstances, Dulcie isn’t inclined to go see the play, not even with free tickets but her friends finally convince her to go. In addition to strobe lights, the production includes a gorgeous Russian Blue cat who walks a tightrope as well as a bit of unexpected sleight of hand when Chris discovers his wallet is missing and ends up as part of the performance. It turns out to be a lot more fun than any of them had expected—until one of the performers is found dead, her throat slashed.

Dulcie being Dulcie, she soon finds herself involved in the investigation and discovers that nothing is what it seems.

This is a fun entry in the series and, because the focus is on the mystery at hand, it’s particularly accessible one for newcomers.  Longtime fans won’t be disappointed either, as some progress is made on continuing storylines.  Dulcie likes to think that she’s very practical and realistic, unlike her mother who still lives in a commune and calls her daughter with vague warnings from the spirit world, but she has her share of imagination and a tender heart for those in trouble, especially those of the feline persuasion.  Like Don Quixote, she wants to save the world but tends to run into a lot of windmills. (I don't think it's coincidence that her real name is Dulcinea.) She gets some guidance from Mr. Grey and kitten Esme (when her little feline nose isn’t out of joint) and is ably supported by Chris and her other friends. The academic setting brings back fond memories, especially to those of us who belong to Garrison Keillor’s POEM (Professional Organization of English Majors). As usual, Simon strikes a nice balance between the supernatural (talking ghost cats) and the realistic, always taking care to see that the solutions are dependent on real world clues and not messages from beyond.  I of course am always interested in the scenes with the cats, and Gus the Russian Blue makes a nice addition.  

I always enjoy Simon’s work and Stages of Grey is no exception.  As with many of Simon’s heroines, Dulcie struggles to overcome the past and a fear of abandonment while moving ahead with her life.  At times, she also has a charming naivety and behaves impulsively—much like the heroines of the gothic literature she studies. Another thing I enjoy is the way the books effortlessly juxtapose the past (18th century literature, with samples of the overwrought style appearing at times) with the present (computers and electronics usually play a role in the plot somewhere). The mysteries are well done, appropriate clues presented, and there’s a sense of fun in the books.  Finally, these are all books I can recommend to those folks who don’t like a lot of explicitness in their stories, be it excessive gore, sex or language, but these aren’t fluffy, sugary tales either. 

 In short these are entertaining mysteries with solid plots and characters which are fun without being silly.  If you like to read in order, start with Shades of Grey and don’t put a “50” in front of it or you’ll get something else entirely.

Full disclosure:  I was sent a review copy of this book but that did not influence my review except in timing:  the book won't be generally available until October.

"MY book! Go away!"

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