I’d just like to point out that this book reads like a 1920s-themed Mad Libs with insert-the-kooky-phrase for the first chapter, and after that it reads like a hard-boiled detective novel went rotten and started to smell like sulfur. Less hard-boiled and more, I don’t know, rotten-egg detective novel.
Claire Of The Wild Rose Inn¸ Jennifer Armstrong, 1994.
So, there is apparently a book in between this one and the Civil War one, and it’s set in 1898 and it’s about a girl who wants to go to a women’s college instead of getting married. It sounds really boring, and I wasn’t able to find a copy of it anywhere, but maybe one day I will. Until that day we’ll skip right to Claire, which is like every stereotype of a Roaring Twenties-themed novel all wrapped up into one somewhat distressing package.
Claire is seventeen years old, and is one of the same Mackenzie family who’s owned the stupid Wild Rose Inn since whatever whatever in the first book. Her father died in the Great War, and ever since she’s been basically running the inn with her semi-incompetent mother and one-year-younger brother. Claire does most of the work while her mother spaces out and dates Jack Handy, the ever-present foes of the Mackenzie family and former owner of the Ship tavern, which he sold and the new owner made into a speakeasy. So as the first chapter opens, Claire is enjoying an illegal speakeasy with her brother Bob (who is a drunk, at the age of sixteen, which must be quite the effort when alcohol is illegal) and her friend Kitty Trelawney when she makes the acquaintance of a “handsome newspaper man” named Hank Logan, who’s in town investigating its rum-running history.
Let’s tally up all the pointlessly evocative phrases that turn up during the first chapter, to set the scene, and then are never heard from again, shall we? “Oh! My skirt’s too narrow for the Charleston!” [Also a creepy interlude where Bob insists that his sister should wear a “flapper dress, like those lookers over there!”—what is it with this family and inappropriate sibling relationships?] “Pretty swelegant, huh?” “What does a girl have to do to get a drink around here?” “Make way, boys. We got a thirsty lady needs some service!” “He told me about a cute little gin mill in Marblehead where a fella could get a drink when he’s thirsty.” “Tight? He’s practically spifflicated!” Then after that, everyone talks like normal people.
Anyway, Hank Logan, Newspaper Man, comes across like a douchebag from the first as well, where he insists on dancing with Claire, gives her a nickname, and drinks her Coke for her, then calls her snobby. So Claire leaves (and I fervently wished she would have left forever and saved us from the trauma of this book) to mop up her completely-plastered brother and take him home. Kitty frets about how she hasn’t seen her dad in a couple days as well, and they gossip about how Claire’s mom keeps dating Jack Handy and they all hate him. On the way home they see Mr. Trelawney’s boat bumping around next to the pier, and Claire climbs in to see what’s going on, and she finds Mr. Trelawney with a bullet hole in his forehead. Dun dun dunnnnn. Murder will out, etc. This is the central plot, in case that wasn’t immediately obvious.
In spite of this traumatic murder and subsequent body discovery, Claire and Hank spend the next day drifting around the inn flirting, pausing only for Claire to tell her brother he’s a lush and gripe at her mother for dating Jack Handy. Hank asks Handy a bunch of “clever” “piercing” questions about hey, they did some smuggling before the Revolution, wouldn’t it be HANDY for someone to do it again, wink wink nudge nudge. Handy, predictably, tells him to screw off. So Claire takes Hank around town to show him the history of it, I suppose, and they explore Trelawney’s boat, where Hank discovers (drumroll) part of a rum label. Dun dun dunnnn. This is not a thrilling mystery.
I just have to note here that throughout the entire book, Hank conducts himself as a giant asshole who feels entitled to Claire’s time and frequently her things as well. Do not eat an apple out of her hand, do not drink a cup of coffee she has poured for herself, you’re a douche.
The rest of the book follows a fairly bog-standard Teen Detectives Solve Crime Local Police Are Suspiciously Not Interested In, as seen in a number of Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys/other derivatives. Claire and Hank go over to Logan practically waving the rum label in the air, and he’s all “Yeah yeah that’s nice now run along and play, kiddies.” Hank’s brilliant idea is to pretend to “infiltrate” the rum smuggling themselves, although that implies there’s a certain amount of secrecy involved when absolutely everybody in town knows exactly where the speakeasy is. They go to the Ship, and Claire makes a hamfisted attempt to be all “So….what if I, you know, worked here? Wink wink nudge nudge?” and the bartender starts looking at a Guy Wearing A Suit—that’s how you know he’s a Bad Guy. Their plan is derailed when Claire finds her drunk-ass brother and has to lug him home again. I actually kind of wonder at a YA book that repeatedly portrays a 16-year-old boy as a gigantic alcoholic.
Claire’s mother is completely useless and spends the next morning shaking her head and wondering “whatever happened to my sweet little boy, O how time marches on etc. etc” instead of actually, you know, trying to figure out what the problem is, which is that Bob has knocked up his 16-year-old girlfriend and doesn’t know what to do. Before Trelawney’s funeral, Claire goes around cleaning the rooms, and finds a rum bottle in Hank’s room, and then proceeds to panic under the idea that he is Lying To Her That Cad. After the funeral, she goes for a walk down the shore by all the expensive vacation homes, and runs into Handy, who not-so-subtly questions her about WTF she’s doing by all the rich people. Classy. This gives Claire an idea, and she goes to the records office to ask who bought the Ship off Handy, and the records clerk is all “I’ll be darned! It’s the most suspicious thing! That file of the one of the oldest pieces of property in town, dating back to the 1670s and therefore probably thick as a brick, is mysteriously missing! No, I can’t tell you who bought it, even though it was just last year! Run along, little girl!” Claire’s detective skills might not be very good but the deception skills of every other loser in this town are equally bad.
Hank returns from a brief trip over to the FBI office in Boston, where a friend of his works (as a “G-man”), and Claire confronts him about the dreaded rum bottle, and Hank informs her that he took it off her drunken brother. Oh, terrific, even better. Hank also fills Claire in on how the smuggling along the Marblehead coast has worked, and they figure out that Trelawney was doing it—seriously? I thought we figured this out like fifty pages ago, why is this being presented as new information? This is like a mystery about goldfish. They ruminate a bit on who’s rich in town—Swenson, the guy wearing a suit who hangs around the Ship a lot, Handy—and Claire thinks maybe, just maybe, they ought to investigate the guy with the expensive fast boat who lives in one of the fancy homes Claire walked by when Handy started accosting her. You know, Hank and Claire are a weird mix of finding some facts old news and some OH MY GOD astonishing. This is so bizarre.
Hank and Claire run off on Hank’s bicycle that night and try to spot the expensive boat, and they get caught by someone’s enormous searchlight. It strikes me that if you were running an illegal substance it would be wiser to use a small lamp to guide your way in to the dock rather than a freaking searchlight, but this makes it easier to spot Claire and Hank, who use the famous “young folks kissing” excuse, and the searchlight wielder hollers that they’re trespassing. Because Hank is so cool about it, Claire is convinced that he doesn’t actually like her at all, and gets all cold and bitchy at him and he responds by getting all cold and angry with her. It’s very stupid and could be easily solved by about ten words of conversation, but that, as we have established, is not something that ever comes up in these books.
When Claire gets home, Handy is there with her mom, and they chastise her a bit for being Out At Night With A Man, and yet it never seems to cross Claire’s mind exactly how Handy knew she was Out Somewhere. The next morning Claire tries to tell her mom that she thinks Handy is a dirtbag, and her mom’s all “But he’s such a perfect gentleman!” and basically the plot of this book is “multiple people tell Claire she’s stupid and/or mistaken.” When Hank comes downstairs, Claire tells him that she thinks Handy is involved in the murder, and then accuses Hank of being slippery and evasive and says it makes it hard to trust him, too. While this is true, they’re interrupted by finding Bob asleep in the back garden (and by asleep I mean “drunkenly passed out”), and they have a brief interlude where he drunkenly says he wants to marry his pregnant girlfriend Hope, but she sensibly does not want to marry a drunkard. Claire’s mom turns up, and when Claire tells her that Bob is a drunk and Handy is a jerk, her mom turns on her and tells her to get the hell out (nicely).
Claire runs away and Hank follows her, and they make up nicely, and then Hank tells her that she deserves a day off, and Claire says she’d like to go dancing. So Hank hauls up a Victrola to the GRAVEYARD, and it’s quite unsettling considering her best friend’s father was buried there like three days ago. So after they dance a bit, Hank is all “Oh by the way I’m going to go check out Swenson’s expensive house, and if I’m not back shortly, call up my buddy at the FBI. Ta ta!” Hank is an asshole. Claire goes home, to where her mother is weeping in frustration that she can’t make the inn a success like Claire’s father could, and cries that she hates thinking Claire thinks of her as incapable. Claire is all “No I don’t!” even though she CLEARLY DOES.
That evening, Handy takes Trelawney’s old boat “up to Salem to sell it,” and Claire is horrified that Hank hasn’t come back yet, and she has an inkling the two things are connected. So she tries to call up Hank’s friend at the FBI, spills everything to him, and then says she’s going to find Hank herself. She dashes out to an unaccompanied dinghy and heads around the neck to Swenson’s house, just in time to spot him and Handy hauling a body-sized lump onto Trelawney’s boat there. It’s Hank, of course, and they stuff him into Trelawney’s boat and douse it in gasoline and haul it out with another boat to set adrift—presumably to crash on the rocks and explode horribly. Claire zips over there, manages with immense difficulty to drag Hank into her boat, and then shoot back to shore before Trelawney’s boat dashes up on the rocks and explodes in a fiery conflagration.
She gets back to shore just in time to see the police and a bunch of other people all converging on Swenson. Bob is there hollering about how Handy told him all about how to make a quick buck with a speakeasy, Mrs. Mackenzie is there hysterical looking for Claire, and Claire herself turns up just in time to accuse Handy of trying to kill Hank. She faints, quick fade to black, and everything is neatly sewn up—bad guys go to jail, Handy goes with them, and Claire and Hank get engaged.
Rating: Ugh. Can I just rate this “ugh?” It’s not even one of the better books in this series which is pretty faint praise indeed. Okay, uh…..C-. It’s not awful. The story itself could be engaging in the hands of a better author or as the plot for an adult book, since there’s lots of room for drama. As usual, Claire and Hank’s romance is pretty lousy, since they fall in love in about three days while Hank acts like an asshole the whole time. The murder mystery itself is an interesting departure for the series, but the payoff is three pages of “action” at the end that doesn’t end up being interesting at all. I’ll give it a C over a D for an interesting premise and not-terrible writing, but no higher than a C-.