This is book #10 in my #20BooksofSummer challenge. Please note that I read Fire in The Ashes by Jonathan Kozol immediately after I read Nickel and Dimed. The books pair well together, but since Grab the Lapels is #NoBoysAllowed, you can find my review on Goodreads.
Terror in Taffeta by Marla Cooper
published by Minotaur Books, March 2016
The premise: at a destination wedding in Mexico, unlikable bridesmaid Dana falls over dead in the middle of the ceremony. The bride’s demanding mother insists that wedding planner Kelsey figure out whodunit — especially since the police have said no one can leave the city. There are many suspects Kelsey uncovers and interrogates, giving the book several twists as she works toward finding the murderer.
Terror in Taffeta is the first book of its kind that I can remember reading. I think this is what readers call a “cozy mystery,” but I’m not sure. There is no violence or sex, and Cooper gives the story over to first-person narrator Kelsey, who navigates police, the bride and groom, the rude mother, an ex-boyfriend, and a best buddy who just can’t quit her. Quickly, the police take the bride’s sister into custody, claiming they have undeniable proof that she’s the murderer.
The book does have some seriously funny moments. When Dana collapses in the first few pages, Kelsey knows she needs to tell the bride, but she runs into the bride’s mother, first. Mrs. Abernathy, a wealthy white woman, insists Kelsey not ruin her daughter’s special day with bad news. Kelsey asks her friend Brody (whom she hired as the wedding photographer) what she should do. Brody asks, “What would Emily Post do?” Emily Post, of course, is the mother of the etiquette book — if you’re ever unsure what to do in a given situation, turn to Ms. Post.
Another great scene that had me in stitches was when Kelsey was trapped at the funeral of a man she didn’t know. She thinks, “I did the only appropriate thing there was to do: I pretended to pray.” In another example, the bridal party must move from their current luxury hotel. They’d planned a week-long visit, but the death of Dana expanded it to two weeks, and people with hotel reservations were about to show up. Kelsey worries about sticking Mrs. Abernathy in a shoddy hotel with “a room with a bed that vibrated if you inserted a couple of pesos.”
Kelsey isn’t just funny; she avoids the stereotype of the wedding planner who spends so much time planning weddings that she’s single and lonely. Instead, Kelsey uses an analogy:
People always assume that when you’re a wedding planner you want to get married really badly, when actually, nothing could be further from the truth. It’s like if you worked at an ice cream shop. For the first month, you’d eat ice cream every day and think, Wow, I’m super lucky; I can have ice cream whenever I want. Then you’d start gaining weight and getting bored with the ice cream. You’d eat it less often, and after a few months, you’d find that you preferred salty snacks.
Kelsey’s ex-boyfriend does play a role in the book, but he’s not what you’d think, and Cooper avoids the sticky-sweet love stuff.
Yet, there were a two big things that drove me insane in Terror in Taffeta, things I couldn’t get over that really spoiled the story for me. First, Mrs. Abernathy: she’s so contrary in every single situation that she felt unrealistic and under-developed. She’s classic racist white lady: “No live-o here-o” she tells Mexican police. And she’s obviously one of those moms who think only her birth children are “real” family.
“You think I’d let a murderer on the guest list? I approved every last person myself….But if it was one of the guests, it’d have to be one of his,” she said, jerking her thumb toward the groom.
What does Mrs. Abernathy have against her new son-in-law? Nothing readers have been told. However, I’ve met parents who don’t consider spouses “real” family. They indoctrinate their children with the notion that spouses come and go, but blood is forever. Ew, creepy, cultish.
Mrs. Abernathy isn’t above a bit of aggression, either. She’ll jab Kelsey in the ribs to get her attention. Rib jabbing is common in books, but have you ever allowed someone to assault you in real life? I hated the way Mrs. Abernathy was a cliche.
Much worse than a cliched character was the premise stretched to nearly breaking: why is a wedding planner playing detective? Well, she doesn’t want Mrs. Abernathy to cancel her final payment. I kept mulling over the logistics: if you hire someone to do a job, you can’t cancel payment because they refuse to meddle in police affairs.
Kelsey does have the good (realistic) sense to call the police when a room has been ransacked and to turn over physical evidence. But then she demands the police do something with the evidence to release the bride’s sister.
“I don’t know why you have this vendetta against [the bride’s sister], but you can’t prove she did this. You know why? Because she didn’t. So why don’t you stop acting like Barney Fife and start doing your job — pronto!”
Who demands the police do things — and for a person she doesn’t really know? Well, in books people do, which makes the police look like they don’t care. I was so frustrated that Kelsey was playing detective in Mexico when the police have told her she’s in the way, but I was also frustrated that they weren’t doing things with the evidence she gave them.
So, I talked to an actual police officer (thanks, Brad!). He said that the police don’t determine someone’s guilt or innocence, which is what Kelsey is demanding, but rely on the court system to present the evidence and come to a verdict. I see readers ask why police always seem so stupid in books; I’m pretty sure it’s because writers give “the mic” to characters running around trying to save the day for no good reason.
In the end, the nagging question — Why the hell is a wedding planner risking her life and career in a foreign country on solving a mystery without giving readers any real reason for doing so? — wouldn’t go away, and I was happy to be done with the book. That’s not to say plenty of readers didn’t love Terror in Taffeta. I read this book on recommendation from crime/mystery writer Margot Kinberg, the book has blurbs from excellent sources, and most ratings on Goodreads are five stars. Perhaps the genre wasn’t for me, so you’ll have to decide! Are you able to suspend disbelief when a realistic character makes unrealistic choices repeatedly?
This book was read as part of Cathy 746‘s challenge to read 20 books between June 1st and September 5th.