What Almost Kills You Makes You Longer

Today’s book review is the second in a series of two. I was really, really lazy today and just decided to start this post now, shortly before midnight so I could count it as being written/partially written today (when have I done that before? oh, just about all the time :-/ including in Baltimore when I was typing on Central Time) but I started typing at 4 minutes before midnight Central, so it counts. YES IT DOES. Okay that’s enough.

One good book deserves another, so I thought I’d delve into Scarlett Thomas‘s first book, Dead Clever, written in 1998. After finishing it, I found out that it’s part of a trilogy around the same character, Lily Pascale.

Dead Clever starts off with Lily Pascale leaving her apartment and boyfriend in London for a respite at her mother’s home in Devon. Having no job despite her education, Lily gets a job teaching literature at the local university in the wake of the grisly murder of Stephanie Duncan, who was found naked and headless. At first, Lily tries to establish a sense of normalcy in her life, but when she discovers Jason lying in the hall, dying and taking his information about Stephanie’s death with him, she puts on her detective cap and tries to figure out what happened to the students and why. At the same time, she can’t figure out why the others in the literature department are also acting strange, with her superior Valentine barely around and her colleague Fenn mysteriously disappearing. Along the way, she encounters a childhood friend whom she almost inadvertently kills; a creepy psychedelic cult which seems to include basically everyone she knows in town, aside from her family; and lots and lots of drugs.

Despite being a terribly long 300 pages, the book didn’t take terribly long to read. It wasn’t terrible, but it bore the marks of a newer writer; it doesn’t contain nearly as much depth and detail as PopCo, which was written in 2004. There was so much going on. The raw materials were there, but I had a hard time staying with some of the details, such as the layout of the university campus and my mental pictures of Lily, her family, and most of the other characters in the story. The only ones who I could pin down were Fenn (a Colin Firth type), Professor Valentine, and the Raven sisters.

Also, the title? Has nothing to do with anything in the book. At all. Not once is that phrase used. The only thing it made me think of was lyrics “Stronger” by Kelly Clarkson, “you think you know me but you’re dead wrong.” Several people die in the book, but it’s a mystery, so that’s a given, and some people are cleverer than others, but still…not a great title.

Like PopCo, I felt that there were a lot of open-ended questions and sort of bizarre circumstances that in the other book made it seem messy, but here made it seem too tidy. Lily did her fair share of legitimate sleuthing, figuring out Jason’s final words and what really happened at the Blue Dolphin on her own, but what really got me was the character of Philip, and the whole cult thing. When Lily arrives at the gathering at Salten, she sees basically everyone from the university there, taking drugs and being weird, including – shocker of shockers – the creepy Professor Valentine as some sort of creepy cult leader. Even her brother Nat knew about this group, yet nobody mentioned it to her at all before she actually showed up at the thing? There, posing as a journalist named Nancy, she meets this guy Philip who wants to tell her the truth about the whole cult, and in the next chapter, gives her basically all the information she needs to know, no questions asked; he has no clue who she is other than that she’s doesn’t fit in at Salten, which somehow makes her worthy of his complete trust and the reveal of all of his secrets of illegal drug experimentation? Color me unimpressed. In addition, the character of Nadia Raven (though I won’t tell you anything more about her) appears way too late in the story to give the reader any hope of discovering what exactly was happening in the murder flashback scenes.

Nevertheless, I want to read more of Thomas’s books; her no-holds-barred Brit Lit style really has me hooked for some inexplicable reason. Possibly because I can respect an amateur sleuth heroine who is into really esoteric topics, has considerable intellect but is plagued with social awkwardness and obvious missed cues, and no matter how awful things get or how much danger she’s in, always has time for coffee. Change the gender and you’ve got me.


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