Wendy Dager | I Murdered the PTA (Zumaya Enigma)

It is Daphne’s take on people and events, rather than the events or people themselves, which is funny.

 
Funny mysteries are very difficult to get right. A better way to put it is: funny mysteries are easy to get wrong. No better illustration exists than a double feature showing Fletch and Fletch Lives. The former features the three most important elements of a comic mystery: humor, interesting characters and an intriguing plot. The latter fails in all three categories. I realize I am simplifying this a bit but there are three basic ways to make a mystery funny:
  • One: Populate your mystery with wacky, zany or just plain weird characters. The best known, or at least most successful, example in recent years would be Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels. I don’t know anyone who loves those books who hasn’t said to me, at one time or another, “Oh, that grandma just cracks me up.”
  • Two: Make the plot, itself, funny. Many of Donald Westlake’s humorous novels fit into this category. That isn’t to say the books don’t have their fair share of strange or funny characters, but rather that the humor derives primarily from the circumstance said characters find themselves in. In the first Dortmunder novel, The Hot Rock, much of the comedy results from the various failed attempts to swipe an emerald, the “hot rock” of the title. The danger in this is that wildly improbable plot elements can be viewed as unrealistic or, even worse, lazy writing.
  • Three: The humor is derived from the way the story is told. The majority of Gregory Mcdonald’s Fletch novels could easily be rewritten as “straight” mysteries with little or no changes to plot or characters. It is the way the main character views events around him and, of course, the famous dialogue that makes these books hilarious.
That brings us to Wendy Dager’s I Murdered the PTA. This book is actually a bit of an odd duck. At first blush, it appears to be a type one but it is actually a type three. I Murdered the PTA tells the story of Daphne Lee-Lee, a widowed mother, singer, pottery maker and vintage bowling shirt fanatic. Despite the affectations, she never comes across as anything more than a bit quirky. Even the hyphenated last name (she and her late husband had the same last name) is the kind of spur-of-the-moment thing an otherwise perfectly normal person about to get married might do. It is Daphne’s take on people and events, rather than the events or people themselves, which is funny.
 
Daphne has a goth best friend but, in this day and age, is goth still considered even a little outré? Daphne sings in an alternative rock band called Bob’s Brain Freeze. Her band mates are genuinely nuts but they don’t count. A rock band with sane, well-adjusted musicians…well, that really would be crazy. There is also the requisite hunky cop, but before you roll your eyes and groan, “Oh Lord, another Stephanie Plum wannabe,” rest assured, his presence is kept to a minimum.
 
While Daphne isn’t really that weird, she is just weird enough to alienate the other moms in a local PTA, dubbed “cupcakes” (hence the cupcake on the cover with skull-shaped sprinkles and dynamite candle). A bomb goes off during an especially awkward PTA meeting. Daphne, who was sulking in the ladies room at the time, was the only survivor. This makes her both the prime suspect and only witness. Who will get her first, the cops or the mad bomber? Fortunately, Ms. Dager doesn’t skimp on plot, which is where most failed funny mysteries fall down: the mystery is often an afterthought. You may not be surprised at the identity of the bad guy, but I bet you’ll be surprised when you find out just why that bomb was planted in the first place.
 
One thing that surprised me and makes Daphne a more realistic character is how passive she is during the first half of the novel. She doesn’t immediately turn into Ms. Marple and begin sleuthing, as happens in so many “amateur detective” novels. Only when she is forced does she take a more proactive role in the investigation. That doesn’t mean the first half of the book is dull—there is plenty going on, Daphne just isn’t the driving force. Mostly, she’s just in the middle of it, rather likes someone standing in the middle of a highway. She may not be doing much, but you can’t take your eyes off of her, wondering when and if she is going to get hit. Another realistic touch is when Daphne succumbs to the temptation to use her newfound notoriety as a murder suspect to promote her band. She feels bad about it, but that doesn’t stop her. Another writer might have had her take the high ground. In her shoes, I can’t honestly say I wouldn’t do the same thing.
 
For people who take funny mysteries seriously, I can easily recommend I Murdered the PTA. | Gordon Hopkins

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