REVIEW: Scared Stiff

Note: This review originally appeared in The Season E-Zine's September mystery section.

Scared Stiff by Annelise Ryan
Kensington, August 2010

Rating: 6 (Satisfactory) (The Season's rating scale runs from 1 to 10).

For fans of: J.A. Konrath and Kinky Friedman

When Shannon Tolliver sets up an elaborate display of Halloween decorations on her front lawn, she isn't expecting her bloody corpse to become part of the tableau. The police arrest Tolliver's estranged husband, Erik, for the crime, but Deputy Coroner Mattie Winston is positive he's innocent -- so positive, in fact, she bets oh-so-hunky Detective Steve Hurley she can prove it. Are Mattie's sleuthing skills up to the task?

Don't let the cozy-looking cover fool you -- this book is anything but. Putrefaction and maggots and feces, oh my! Scared Stiff is not a book for the squeamish; Annelise Ryan has packed her latest (the second in the series) to the gills with gory crime scenes, gooey autopsies, and leaking catheters.

Now, I have no problem with gore -- I'm well aware murder is neither cozy nor antiseptic. And there are plenty of authors out there who do gore well -- Tess Gerritsen, for example, often writes scenes that can turn even the most iron of stomachs. But Tess Gerritsen's gore serves a purpose. Almost to a detail, it's there because it's forwarding the plot in some way -- it's a clue, or it's helping to establish a setting or a mood. Not so with Ryan. Scared Stiff is full of indiscriminate gore, dropped seemingly at random and, as far as I can tell, for little reason other than shock value.

I'm not saying Scared Stiff isn't a decent book. Mattie makes an engaging protagonist -- a smart, funny, self-deprecating ice-cream-addict for whom readers will want to root -- and the supporting characters are likable, as well, from Mattie's neurotic and hopelessly old-fashioned mother to date-gone-wrong William-not-Bill. Her budding relationship with Detective Hurley is compelling series fodder (not to mention steamy enough to make the average reader's heart skip a beat or two), and the mystery is incredibly clever and well-constructed. Ryan's prose is even quite good when she allows herself a serious moment, but they're too few far and between. She writes some touching scenes -- Mattie and her husband David discussing the demise of their marriage, for example -- but the skill and poise with which she writes her characters' vulnerability is almost without fail undercut by "death goo," rancid cottage cheese, and near-constant references to her character's breasts.

Her humor starts out as irreverent -- something you'd see in a Janet Evanovich novel, maybe -- but irreverent quickly gives way to puerile and tacky. Add in a while host of farcical elements (the town's only cab service is staffed by senior citizens who can't drive after dark; an early car accident strands Mattie with a catheter-challenged, senile, dessert-obsessed sidekick/chauffeur, and then later, a used hearse for a car; and the town's only bars are named Nowhere, Somewhere, and Anywhere) and the end product feels like a good mystery novel hijacked and re-written by a twelve-year-old boy.

The book ends strongly, with tons of action and lots of romantic and dramatic tension, but for me, it was too little, too late.