Antiques, Murder, and Personal Ads REVIEWING This Pen For Hire

This Pen for Hire

Author: Laura Levine
Genre: Mystery
Year: 2002


Smarmy personals ads. Daring declarations of love. Freelance writer Jaine Austen has penned them all. But no one needs her help more than geeky, gawky Howard Murdoch. His request is simple enough: a letter proclaiming his undying love for Stacy Lawrence, a gorgeous aerobics instructor. The fact that he's never actually met the woman gives Jaine pause -- yet she soon overcomes her misgivings, and the unlikely Romeo lands a date! But his triumph is short-lived. On Valentine's Day, Howard finds Stacy bludgeoned to death with a Thigh Master -- and is quickly named the prime suspect. 

Jaine is shocked. Sure, Howard's awkward and eccentric. But a murderer? That's hard to believe. Especially after a little sleuthing reveals a plethora of people who harbored less-than-loving feelings towards the svelte Stacy. Now Jaine had better wrangle her clues quickly, before a crafty killer catches on -- and puts a whole new spin on her ghost writing career...


I won this book through a Goodreads giveaway provided by Kensington, the publisher. So thanks Goodreads and Kensington for the free book. This in no way impacts my review and honesty, and trust me, you're about to get plenty of honesty from me. 

So let's first get into a single gripe I have with a bit in the synopsis: "never actually met the woman". Technically, it is right that he hasn't met her, in that he hasn't talked to her, but he has actually seen her before in general, in person. The guy is rather pitiful, but he isn't inherently creepy, despite what the back cover seems to want to imply. It's slightly misleading in tone.  

Gripes aside now, let's get into things. This book is the first of a series of "Jaine Austen Mysteries" that has been published for quite some time now. This is one of those quick-to-the-presses, paperback, cozy mystery novels that women buy by the hundreds and which seem to generally be a dime a dozen. Up to this point, I think I've read about four cozy mysteries (the Barking Detective series and this one). When I saw the giveaway listing, I thought the premise seemed interesting and I loved that the main character was named Jaine Austen. Being a fan of the works of Austen and retellings of her books, I thought this might have some fun hidden under the cover. Unfortunately, that isn't the case, although the premise IS interesting. 

The idea of this is pretty straightforward and follows the basic model of a cozy mystery with an amateur detective, while following the general rules that make it qualify as detective fiction. I took a college course on detective fiction so allow me to briefly use my undergrad degree for something by pointing out that this book follows the rules. According to my copy of the Longman Anthology of Detective Fiction, an amateur detective fiction story follows certain rules. Let's address them and see if this book follows them: 

1. "There must be a crime"

Yes, Stacy Lawrence is murdered.

2.  "There must be a detective, someone with superior powers of inductive and deductive reasoning, who is capable of solving the crime that baffles the official police system

Jaine Austen is definitely outside of the police system, but I'm not sure I would say she has superior powers of reasoning. She just doesn't write off Howard as fast as the police do.

3. "The police must be seen as either incompetent or as incapable of solving a certain type of complex crime

Detective Rea believes Howard committed the murder wholeheartedly and continuously disregards Jaine when she talks to him and disagrees with his murderer of choice. 

4. "The reader must be given all the information or 'clues' to be able to solve the crime"

There are plenty of clues and suspects provided. 

5. "The detective must explain who the criminal is and the motive, means, and opportunity by the conclusion of the story" 

This happens before the book ends, just take my word for it.

All of the above rules are listed in The Longman Anthology of Detective Fiction (Mansfield-Kelly & Marchino 25)there will be a full citation at the end of the post since I quoted from it. 

So this is a bona fide amateur detective story. But is it a good one?  

Eh. It's alright. Jaine is a freelance writer and she writes all kinds of documents for her clients, ranging from letters and personal ads, to company brochures and consumer complaints. This time she is hired to write a love letter for Howard. Howard is an awkward insurance adjuster who lives with his mother. Jaine is a...well she's kind of hard to describe honestly, and that's where I run into some of my problems. 

Jaine isn't a great character, in my opinion. She's funny and sympathetic at times, but other times she borders on irritating and imbecilic. Again, that's just my opinion. Jaine lives in Beverly Hills, California. She is divorced and has a cat named Prozac, which although funny, is also really weird to have as a pet's actual name. Sometimes I just find Jaine and her words to be very awkward. For example, when Howard comes to see Jaine about the letter at the beginning, he almost sits on the cat, but we don't know this. She just tells him, "Don't sit on my Prozac" as he is about to sit down. That statement confused me. We find out that Prozac is her fluffy companion the sentence after, but the sentence preceding the explanation is just so jarring. For a moment I wondered why she would leave pills sitting out so openly when she is going to have company and it seemed completely absurd. 

Additionally, Jaine has a very guilty complex as she tells us things. Yes, she speaks directly to us in an almost aside like manner. She says that she won't do something, such as order a dessert that she doesn't need for her figure, then in an aside confesses that she did EXACTLY that. This happens numerous times, and while humorous, the more it happens, the more I can't help but wonder who she is telling this to. Also, why she feels the need to tell us all her instances of failed will power. Funny? Yes. Necessary? Not sure...unless her insecurity is something that the author wants to beat us over the head with.  

Jaine is very insecure, especially after her failed marriage. She doesn't have much luck with her love life, and hasn't been very satisfied in other personally intimate areas. Jaine is also very open and shares a lot about things of that nature. We get to hear about her electronic companion (a specific tool girls are supposed to be fond of, please read between the lines) and her turn ons. There's plenty of adult content to be found here, although nothing too steamy action wise so it's all very minimal in use, despite being so prevalent in conversation and deliberation. She teaches a writing class to the elderly at a senior center and lets us know directly that she likes when her students provide details that are more exciting and risque in general. She doesn't like to hear about family life and actual life experience in the workplace. She gets bored with such topics very easily and is in a way neglectful of her students in that regard, bordering on disrespectful as she tunes them out. 

Jaine is also slightly judgmental, despite continually being self-deprecating about her figure. She repeats the same sentence structures and asides throughout the book, at times sounding like a broken record. In terms of her judgmental attitude, here's an example. Despite being divorced and not really having any successful dates in recent times, she directly insults Howard about the potential of him having a girlfriend, then immediately tries to cover up the insult. She also doesn't seem to have a problem with stretching the truth to benefit herself, which I think is pretty cruddy to do as a person in general. She makes comments about others being snooty or pretentious, but many times her tone almost comes off the same way, at a lower socio-economic level. She injects what she believes others think of her or would want to say about her. This can be funny, but also breaks up the flow of the scenes where it happens. It's humorous, but definitely jarring as it emphasizes her judgmental side. 

Jaine loves to kick back in the tub with a glass of wine or two and judges people left and right, but feels lesser than others during interactions where status symbols (rich gyms, BMWs) are involved. Is this just how Californians are? I get the feeling that Jaine is supposed to be a woman who is older than me (middle age), based on her life experiences (marriage, college), but she acts and speaks like an immature 22 year old that I generally would not want to be friends with. She seems to mean well and at times she is likable, but then at other times her words and actions just stink of immaturity and poor decision making, paired with a lack of foresight. At times I felt bad for her, and I can occasionally see where she is coming from. At other times I just want to shake my head and hand her a trendy self-help book since she'd be the kind of person who not only needs one, but would trust it because of its reputation and trendiness. Despite being named after a writer whose books are very enjoyable to present day intellectuals and literary enthusiasts, Jaine just doesn't come across as being very bright. It makes you wonder if she or her mom really even read Jane Austen's work and understood it, or just thought it was a trendy name that could be thrown upon a child in the hopes of appearing higher brow with no substance behind it. There is no real literary fun to be found here where Austen is concerned, and that is really disappointing to me. 

The crime itself and the investigation is pretty interesting. There are a lot of suspects to be found and that provides the opportunity for a lot of caricatures and suspicion. Here's a list:
  • a married, Russian landlord who is very saddened by Stacy's murder
  • a cold elderly woman who wanted the apartment but was pushed aside in favor of Stacy 
  • an antiques seller who may or may not be gay depending on who you ask
  • an ex-best friend after money
  • an ex-boyfriend distraught at the lack of care Stacy got from his replacement
  • a boyfriend who is a cheating, high powered man in the entertainment business
There are a lot of people to meet, including Jaine's best friend, a New Yorker who also writes in the television business (he's writing a cartoon involving a cockroach) her gay, perpetually eavesdropping neighbor, and her senior students. The cast makes for several laughs throughout the course of the book and generally quite a bit of intrigue as we go through possible motives and means for each potential suspect. 

This book was a pretty quick read for me. I read it in about a day. At first I was doing a lot of eye rolling and eyebrow lifting because of how much Jaine was getting on my nerves, but eventually I settled in. I laughed at the beginning between the eye activity and throughout the rest of the book, so it wasn't all bad. By about halfway through, I was pretty invested and wanted to know how things were going to be resolved. I feel like if this one was put on television, it would've been way easier to figure out due to crucial visual elements that are harder to translate and catch on paper. This one definitely works best as a book. Keeping the reader visually isolated to only their imagination increases the chance of missing some of the clues and being surprised at the end. I wasn't fully surprised, but I was definitely amused during the last half. 

My main gripes are with Jaine and her general environment. Her way of talking at times and how she judges people really gets on my nerves. She feels very immature despite being sympathetic because of how pathetic she can be. She also lacks some of the ability to think ahead, which leads to comical situations, but which really is a major flaw. I don't mind having an amateur detective character, but I don't want the detective to necessary be bumbling and unable to consider consequences of choices and actions, or how to get out of potential hazards. Another gripe I have is the way that Howard is treated and portrayed. It is rather contradictory in some ways. Howard is portrayed as a pathetic geek type who lives with his mom, has no romantic prospects, and isn't really rich. He has a boring job and not much going for him. The fact that he lives at home implies that he either really loves his mom, or is in some regards, a bum. Yet Stacy works at the gym he is part of, which we later learn costs thousands of dollars a month. Why is Howard at such an expensive gym or even working out to begin with if he's so pathetic? How does he afford it? I understand all the stereotypes and insinuations about his character, but things just don't quite line up all the way.

Generally speaking, for a light read, this book isn't bad. It is humorous at times and I did enjoy it once I got far enough in. I laughed here and again and was able to make it all the way through. However, I did have several gripes. I generally hope that because this is the start of a decently long series, the books (and Jaine) get better over time. I'm not really sure how much of a need I feel to find out if they do though. If I was able to find the sequel as an ebook through the library or just at the library in general, I might read it, if I didn't have something more pressing to read or do. I'm not going to rush to locate and read the next one.

I don't feel like I'm a cynical person, but I also don't think this book was written with ME as the target audience by any means. In many ways I actually feel like its written at a lower intellect level, but for older people..., which is messing with me a lot since I generally perceive folks older than me as needing something more serious or mature in some regards, although I suppose this isn't always the case. Sometimes everybody needs a little bit of fluff I guess. That's what this book is...cozy mystery fluff. I might read it again if there was a rainy day and I didn't have much else and just wanted a light laugh. I personally do not recommend that anyone rush out to buy a copy for themselves or rush to buy any sequels of it. This Pen for Hire gets a Lone Star rating of ✯✯. It's a decent time, but it isn't anything to write home about. Read it or don't, it doesn't make much difference, honestly. You might get a laugh or two, but you could also get that in twenty minutes with a good sitcom. 

This concludes another review here at The Real World According To Sam, where I bring the books straight to your screen and even provide my own two cents about them. See you at the next review! 

Works Cited

Mansfield-Kelley, Deane and Lois A. Marchino. The Longman Anthology of Detective Fiction. Pearson, 2005.