The Socialite’s Guide to Murder, by S.K. Golden

12 Oct
Cover for The Socialite's Guide to Murder; on a black background, there's a front elevation of an art deco hotel, rendered in golden/cream. Some of the windows appear to be 'open' and through them we see figures doing suspicious things. The moon peeks from behind the roof, and some clouds move overhead.

This is marketed as a debut (unless S.K. Golden is a pseudonym, of course), as well as the first book in a series, and I have to say that it shows.

Reader beware: wealthy white debutante, with attendant problematic behavior and perspective; closeted gay best friend (see: period setting); agoraphobia and PTSD; car accident; parental neglect; closed door sex.

The Socialite’s Guide to Murder, by S.K. Golden

The premise for the Pinnacle Hotel Mystery series is that our heroine and narrator, parlays her position as ‘spoiled rich daddy’s girl’ to get away with behavior that’s at best socially unacceptable; that she does this partly as a coping mechanism for unresolved childhood trauma; and that between that, an obsession with Agatha Christie novels, and her natural ingenuity, she’s in the best position to solve murders.

I have to say, however, that having her solve one murder at daddy’s hotel is somewhat believable; having it be a series of murders all in the hotel, would be taking the ‘small town murder sleuth’ to an even more unnatural extreme.

Here’s the blurb for this first book:

The hotel was her refuge, but scandal is afoot—and a killer stalks the halls in this charming series debut perfect for fans of Rhys Bowen and Ashley Weaver.

It’s 1958 and Evelyn Elizabeth Grace Murphy has not left the Pinnacle Hotel in fourteen months. She suffers from agoraphobia, and what’s more, it’s her father’s hotel, and everything she needs is there. Evelyn’s always been good at finding things, she discovered her mother dead in a Manhattan alleyway fifteen years earlier. Now she’s finding trouble inside her sanctuary. At a party for artist Billie Bell, his newest work is stolen, and Evelyn’s fake boyfriend (and real best friend), movie star Henry Fox, is accused of the theft. But just as Evelyn sets out to prove Henry’s innocence, she finds Billie Bell dead.
 
The murder weapon links the crime to the hotel’s chief of security. But why would he use a knife with his initials on the handle? With her beloved home in disarray, Evelyn joins up with hotel employee (and her secret crush) Mac Cooper to get to the bottom of the case.
 
As Mac picks locks and Evelyn snoops around the hotel, they discover the walls around them contain more secrets than they previously knew. Now, Evelyn must force herself to leave the hotel to follow the clues—but when she and Mac set off to chase a lead, their car crashes and they barely escape with their lives. Someone snipped Evelyn’s brake lines, and now the stakes have become dangerously high.
 
Evelyn’s knack for sleuthing—and her playful imagination—are always hard at work, and she throws an elaborate party at the hotel where every guest is a suspect. But will the killer emerge from the glamorous lineup? If not, Evelyn just might find herself…next in line for murder.

I have a hate-love-hate relationship with most book blurbs, because they are supposed to sell the book to potential readers, and often what’s actually between the covers has little to do with what the blurb promised. This blurb, on the other hand, spits out plot points all the way to the 77% mark. Which, for a detective story, is definitely too much.

Anyway…

We are introduced to Evelyn through her privilege. Not just that, as far as she’s concerned, she’s pretty much the center of the world (even if her world is just The Pinnacle), but how she relates to her things, and how so much of her life revolves around her appearance.

It’s clear that a lot of Evelyn’s “quirky” ditzy persona is, at least in part, the result of early trauma from finding her mother’s body, and the fact that the murderer has not been caught. Also, she’s only 21, so at least she sounds very young and very naïve because she is.

Then there are the daddy issues (as shown by her almost desperation to have the men in her life, from the hotel manager, Mr Sharpe, to detective Hodgson, “like her”), that move her to do some spectacularly stupid things, just so she can “prove to both those men” that she’s not stupid.

The thing is, devoting paragraphs to what she puts on, from panties to jewelry and every step in between, makes sense–once, to set up her personality. But when you are doing it with almost every wardrobe change all the way to the end, what I realize is that Evelyn hasn’t really grown as a person–because, lest we forget, it’s Evelyn who is narrating.

She’s is not an “unlikable heroine” in the usual sense, but she’s a spoiled young woman who spends (her father’s) money like water, and doesn’t seem to care much about the people around her, other than Henry and Malcolm, maybe a bit about Amelia (a child who’s staying at the hotel with her parents); but even when it comes to those she does care about, it’s all centered in how they fulfill a role in her life.

Evelyn is, basically, shallow. Smarter than she’s given credit for, but shallow.

And since we see all the other characters through Evelyn’s eyes, what we get is a very shallow picture; not exactly flat, but not quite engaging or alive. All the people around Evelyn seem to be characters in the story she’s telling herself.

This means that the entire romance plotline failed for me.

(Plus, having her think, about one of the other characters, that he is “handsome for a man barreling toward fifty”, my impression of both Evelyn and the author is not a positive one–if we want to talk about attractive traits, ageism is not one.)

I do have to say, however, that the scenes where Evelyn is confronting her trauma are truly moving; in those, she’s a whole person, rather than a cliché.

Now, to the mechanics of the story as a mystery.

The book honestly needed tighter editing.

The author plays it straight, giving the reader all we need to figure out what happened; this is good in some ways, but in this case meant that I figure out the killer and their motivations well before Evelyn. Also, a failure to set up a “closed room” scenario for the murder means that the pivotal revelation at the climax didn’t really stand out for me.

There were some rather large errors in key scenes that made them confusing rather than impactful. For example: when Evelyn finds the corpse, much is made that he’s “looking at her”–at the same time that much is made of the fact that she can see the knife wound on his back, down to location and size. You cannot do both those things at the same time with someone whose head is still attached.

The Socialite’s Guide to Murder is 5.50 out of 10 for me.

* * * *

This book was released yesterday, October 11; I received an ARC through NetGalley, and oh boy, the formatting was terrible. I sincerely hope, for the sake of the author’s career, that these issues were corrected in time for the release.

screenshot from my kindle; the lines of the text are interrupted by the title of the book and the page number, but they're also jumbled out of order and with different font sizes:
Where it should read, "I reread the same page in _Hickory Dickory Death_ three times", instead it reads (with two font changes in the middle) "The socialite's guide to murder three times 47 I reread the same page in _Hickory Dickory Death_"

Update: all the issues with the digital ARC were solved for the release of the actual digital book.

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