Michael Cecilione, Muse (Pinnacle, 1999)
[originally posted 21Jan2002]
Among the number of ways in which this book goes wrong is one (and, in fact, it is the main one) for which Cecilione can’t in any way be faulted, and that is that the book jacket contains the spoiler that gives away the ending. The person who wrote the back jacket copy for the paperback edition of this novel should be boiled in lead. If you already know what’s going to happen in the last twenty pages, especially while the various reviews of the novel talk about how great the last twenty pages are, it takes away something from the book. A very big something, in fact. I’ll try to avoid committing the same sin here.
The story opens with Johanna Brady, a struggling New York actress, meeting Matt Lang, fantastically successful crime novelist. The two have a whirlwind romance, and Matt ends up asking Johanna to spend the winter with him at his secluded house in the woods while he cranks out his next novel. This will set off alarm bells in the head of any dedicated mystery reader, but the dedicated mystery reader who’s ever had a whirlwind romance is likely to do the same quick rationalization Johanna does. Once they get to the cabin, things start getting interesting. (Complications… oh, you know the drill.)
It’s also where the book falls apart. Johanna and Matt, along with various minor characters (the best of whom, a Robert DeNiro wannabe who actually drives a taxi for a living!, never gets anywhere near the due he deserves– I’d love to see Cecilione write a followup to this concentrating on that guy), are well on their way to being complex and believable characters until this point. Once they’re out in the woods, Johanna’s actions become predictable, and she starts sounding the same note over and over again; Matt’s responses to her actions do the same. While all this is going on, the two also fall into the genre-writing trap of sudden mood swings that make no sense; they go from flinging things across the room in one paragraph to clutching each other and ripping bodices in the next. A little of that can be good fun; too much and the reader will start wondering if Cecilione has been channeling the spirit of the late Dame Barbara Cartland.
Still, if you have the willpower to not read the back cover, the final twenty pages are arguably worth the three hundred eighty that precede them; Cecilione sets the scene so that any number of endings are plausible, and then roots between them to find the perfect combination of the plausible to create an ending the reader won’t be likely to have come up with. The payoff would have been even better had the setup been in the same league, but it may be enough to lure the hardcore mystery reader who has nothing on the shelves to read. **