Non-critic Critique: For Sale in Palm Springs

From an alcoholic boxer to a retired police chief working on murder cases in his spare time, there have been a variety of interesting characters that have populated my journey through the gratis pile of everyone’s favorite online bookseller.  Previously, I discussed Johnny T. Noctor’s Boxer Hobo, the tale of a boxer who suffered brain damage in places other than the ring.  Before I started down that road, I read Albert Simon’s For Sale in Palm Springs, the first installment of the Henry Wright Mysteries.  Albert Simon’s For Sale in Palm Springs is a self-published book, through Simon’s own Ocotillo Books (formerly Desert Dreams).  I’d first heard of the book through online forums, where the author had posted information about his books.  When I saw a free ebook, I decided that the price was right to give a new writer a chance.

Unlike Boxer Hobo, For Sale in Palm Springs is a plot-driven book that is focused primarily on character interactions.  Henry Wright gets cases through his friendship, and weekly coffee dates, with the so-called ‘chief of detectives’ for the Palm Springs Police Department.  After his friend mentions a case in which a real estate agent gets killed in a listed home, Henry Wright is on the case.  The use of an unscrupulous realtor as the deceased is one outstanding means of bringing numerous characters and red herrings into the mix.  It also creates a natural progression for a plot – keep on going through subjects and scenarios until you reach the killer.  That’s how it usually goes, right?

I’m not an avid detective fiction reader; one of my NaNoWriMo MLs keeps on telling me to dig up Raymond Chandler and his ilk, but my queue is essentially Stephen King and friends.  It’s been peppered with a wonderful assortment of fantasy and sci-fi over time, but my recent detective fiction includes original novels based on Psych! and Monk.  They were good reads, but they’re as much character driven as they are plot driven.  However, I think I’m familiar enough with mysteries to know how things move.  That being said, I picked up on the culprit fairly quickly and was more interested in the interactions as Henry Wright interviewed one character after another.

Henry is a likeable main character.  The narration follows Henry closely, but not closely enough to get an overabundance of Henry’s thoughts and emotions.  There are some moments when the description becomes rather stock, and other moments where there isn’t much description at all; however, the balance of thoughts, setting, action, and dialogue is just enough that you can commiserate with Henry Wright without getting too sick of his internal monologue.  His interactions with Wayne, Charles, and other characters take on a largely humorous tone without having many overt jokes.

I have read many of the reviews of this book, both positive and negative.  Those who panned this book are right in the sense that the dialogue can sometimes get grating, the grammar is somewhat distracting, and there are moments where the narration discusses mundane things as if they carry weight.  If you can put this aside, you can be entertained, particularly by Henry and his observations.  Some people have panned this book because it is predictable, and thus left them with no satisfaction; yes, it is predictable, but the item that took the satisfaction away from me was how abruptly it ended. I’m not saying that he had to pad the word count, but I would have liked to have seen a higher level of interaction, and perhaps some character growth from the two characters that are in those final few pages.  The thin-ness of certain descriptions and the lack of twists was problematic, but it was never more problematic than the end.  Unfortunately, that is the last taste the reader gets of Henry and his Palm Springs world… that is, until the next book.

I think the sparseness of this book did contribute some to the pace and the lightness of tone – both of which are some of my big selling points as a ‘critic’ who is currently on-the-fence about a book that I read about a month ago.  Furthermore, it does allow Henry to flip through a rolodex of suspects before finding the culprit.  This simultaneously allows for a little more insight into the victim and a lot more ‘people watching.’  On top of that, it spends a lot of time talking about real estate, and the types of homes that Henry encounters; these details lend to the reality of the text.

Ultimately, I think that it’s a good free excursion into the Henry Wright stories, and is a quick enough read that it won’t be tough for those who don’t like it, but who have never abandoned a book in mid-read.  While I never would say that you need to compromise one for the other, this book does become a good way of measuring whether or not you value a likeable main character over a cliff-hanging plot.

As with the Boxer Hobo, I think that there is something teachable about fiction through looking at Henry Wright.  As a writer, I tend to have characters who operate alone, or spend a lot of time in their own headspace as they interact with others; Henry, and the narrative perspective that accompanies him, does not delve too deeply into his headspace.  We get a lot of characters without delving into their motivations or the direction that they are taking in their lives.  What this equates to is more story in fewer words.  I’m not saying this is perfect—many writing coaches say that flat characters is a damnable offense—but it’s amazing how you can latch on to a character without truly understanding who he is or what he is going through in that moment.

A number of months ago, I set down my third NaNo novel.  It wasn’t complete, and it was time to gear up for this past year’s NaNoWriMo.  I don’t know what was so exhausting about that book, but now I wonder if I was spending too much time trying to do justice by too many characters.  The For Sale in Palm Springs approach may not be the solution, but it might be a push in the right direction.

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