Larger than Death by Lynne Murray

Larger than Death by Lynne Murray is presented as an amateur sleuth novel, possibly even a cozy mystery. I found these genre distinctions to be untrue, in a good way. Josephine Fuller is a fat women whose story is already in motion when we meet her. She’s recently divorced and looking for a new job. She is hired by an elderly philanthropist who uses a wheelchair and would like an employee to travel to interview organizations. Do they meet the requirements of types of places the philanthropist wants to support financially? Josephine is inspired by the job, especially since her new boss likes to help women’s organizations. She’s hired.

But after a year of good work, Jo decides to take a break and visit her old friend Nina in Seattle. The two met years ago when Jo discovered that Nina, another large woman, makes and sells clothes for the plus-size community. The connection was instant:

[Nina] saw that I was shy and made it a point to say a few kind words that didn’t contain any stingers about how wonderful I could be if I weren’t what I was. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized how desperately starved I was for kindness.

Thus, when Jo arrives at Nina’s apartment to find her friend dead in bed — her throat has been cut — and the words “KILL ALL WHALES” on Nina’s mirror, Jo is shaken. The other residents of this small apartment building gather in the landlord’s apartment to learn what happened and start organizing a memorial and funeral. In this way, Lynne Murray introduces readers to a cast of characters — and suspects.

Larger than Death doesn’t have just one fat character, like most fat-positive books. People of all weights and heights and shapes exist in these pages. For that reason alone, Murray’s book is incredibly fat-positive and size-accepting. Jo acknowledges that people thought she and Nina were sisters despite different heights, hair colors, and shapes, pointing out most folks think “all fat women look alike, right?” Nina was more naughty cupid, and Jo is more “Gaugin’s South Sea Island type.”

Nina’s friends Joan and Patrice are both described as around 400 pounds and tall, but Joan is Samoan and Patrice is African American. You can’t confuse them! I know there are readers who hate when fat characters are given a weight, as if there is an acceptable number at which a weight should suggest that the character is fat, but not “horrifyingly” fat. I used to agree; why separate out fat people in categories of acceptable? But Murray’s novel made me realize why I was wrong: if I’m not told a weight, I’m free to imagine what I want, and I always imagine someone Lane Bryant-size, and that’s a problem. Very Fat women exist, too, and deserve to be seen.

As the police finish up in Nina’s apartment and the detectives are put on the case, I worried that Jo would assume the police department was stupid and do her own investigation, despite having no experience. That’s what I’ve seen in other novels, and it drives me insane. But Jo never enters Nina’s apartment without an okay from the detectives, and she doesn’t follow any leads for the sake of solving the mystery. After Nina’s lawyer reads Jo the will, she does travel to Nina’s hometown because there are individuals named in Nina’s will who only have a P.O. box. Who are these people? How does Nina know them? Jo’s search leads her to learn more about Nina’s past, and that Nina wasn’t always on the straight and narrow. I loved that Jo learns information without interfering, and Nina is not perfect just because she was murdered and a friend to many. The detectives do their job, and Nina does what’s required of her.

There are a number of characters who hate fat people. This is to be expected because Jo lives in the real world (this isn’t a fantasy novel). Each time, Jo defends herself beautifully. I felt so proud! One antagonizing character is Andrew Stack. He has a long history with Nina, though Jo doesn’t know what that history is. All she knows is that Stack created a diet program. The two meet as Jo is grabbing cookies and fruit out of the kitchen to serve to guests planning Nina’s funeral. Stack tells her more about his diet program:

“In the Stack Program we teach that accepting yourself just as you are is the first step to becoming who you really want to be.”

“And if I already am who I really want to be?”

“You can’t be serious.”

Interestingly, characters not only hated fat people because they viewed them as tricksters (one man said he thought he married a “healthy” farm girl type with a large breasts and implied she got fat only after they were married) and out-of-control eaters, but also because Murray writes about fat people with sex lives. *GASP!* It irks a fatphobic person to no end to know that a large person is having a good time with life, rather than sitting at home and weeping. Such rage is not only expressed as cruelty, but violence. A serial killer is dubbed “Captain Ahab” and praised for his “services” by a local radio DJ because the killer only murders fat women. “Captain Ahab” may be Nina’s killer, especially since Nina protested the DJ who thought it was so funny that fat women were being slaughtered.

Overall, I found Lynne Murray’s characters honest portrayals of people affected by grief and fatphobia. That Murray managed to write a murder mystery in which the main character doesn’t turn amateur sleuth is even better! Highly recommended.

25 comments

  1. I like the sounds of this one, and you really opened my eyes when you made that distinction about books having only one fat character! I never realized that until you pointed it out, but it’s so true. Why can’t we have people of all sizes? And why not the ‘very fat’ people of 400 pounds etc? Personally the question of whether to list their actual poundage (is that a word?) doesn’t make a big difference to me, but I’ve never struggled with weight so my opinion doesn’t hold much weight in this matter (pun intended).

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    • People are sort of nudged to pick an “acceptable fat” look in their head with characters. This is where the word “curvy” bothers me; it suggests a person who is heavier, but not “unacceptably fat.” And when it comes to respecting individuals, what does it matter how fat they are? Thus, in this novel, the author gave us a chance to picture people are not automatically pictured in our heads. Plus, when I enter a room, there are people of all sizes! Bigger than me, smaller, taller, shorter, darker, lighter. Books should reflect that. Thanks for your comment, Anne. I loved it!

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  2. I see the cover says ‘A Josephine Fuller Mystery’- is this the first book in a series? I’ll admit I was a bit worried when I saw ‘amateur sleuth’ in the first line of your review, but then relieved when you said it didn’t follow that pattern, and excited when you explained that the MC is looking into her friend’s past for information and closure rather than to solve the case under detectives’ noses! It’s always nice to see a mystery where the character isn’t making stupid choices and breaking rules to beat the police. And it sounds like Murray’s done great with characterization and commentary all around- a definite win!

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  3. This sounds like an enjoyable read. Amateur detectives in novels don’t hugely bother me but I do dislike when the entire police force to whatever is incompetent and someone with no experience comes along and figures it out rather than a professional detective! The idea of a serial killer targeting fat women and people finding it funny is horrifying but sadly believable.

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  4. I read detective novels without really thinking about them, so you have put into words what I find unsatisfactory about cosy mysteries – that amateurs can outthink the police (not that police don’t sometimes bury crimes, especially crimes against minorities, under the carpet).
    Your research into fat women in fiction continues to astound and inform me. Keep it up!

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    • I’m working on it! 😀 In cozies, not only do the protagonists sometimes outsmart the police, in some books that absolutely do every illegal thing possible. I read a cozy in which the author had no clue (based on her book) that police and detectives are different.

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  5. I enjoyed your review! It’s good that this isn’t the type of cozy mystery where the MC is able to solve the crime because the detectives are incompetent.

    I hesitated to say this but… it’s sounds like the author has stereotyped the characters to me. Nina sounds like she might be “acceptably fat” and is fun loving, Jo might be “curvy” and exotic (your South Seas reference) and the women who are 400lbs are Samoan and African American characters.

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    • Hmmm…..you bring up a good point. I’d have to skim through the book again, but I remember there being something that indicated to me that they were all quite larger, rather than “Lane Bryant fat,” but now that you’ve asked about the references that are literally in the book that I quotes, I have to rethink! There were references to Jo running well for a fat girl, to a father who told Jo to stay away from his son because the son had already dated a fat girl (Nina). Thank you for pointing this out to me. I’m going to pay extra careful attention with future books!

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  6. The “amateur sleuth outsmarting the police” thing often annoys me in cosy mysteries, which is part of the reason that I like Christie so much more than other writers (Poirot is ex-police and Marple is condoned/supported by the police in most investigations). Glad that this book didn’t take that route!

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      • Her origin story (I think) is in The Thirteen Problems, a collection of interlinked short stories set at a dinner party. A semi-retired VIP of some sort (judge? chief inspector?) is deeply impressed by her incredible mind, and that’s how she gets a lot of her cachet with the police. But she mostly gets involved because panicked friends call her when strange things happen and they want a Sensible, Reassuring presence – but instead of being sensible and reassuring, she always solves the case.

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  7. I’m so glad that this book comes highly recommended! It seems like 2020 has been a shockingly good year for fat-positive literature on your blog. I know they cannot all be winners, but it feels like I’ve read quite a few reviews which ended with highly recommended. Will you do a wrap-up of all the books featuring fat characters this year? I seem to recall you doing this in the past…

    As you found the genre distinctions (mature sleuth/cozy mystery) untrue, how would you label this book?

    Also, I must know if Jo’s research into Nina’s life impacts her job at all. This job sounds awesome! I’d love to do that.

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    • I’m not sure I did a wrap-up post, but I do talk about the fat-positive book experience in my end-of-year wrap-up post briefly. However, I could be wrong! I’ve been doing this quest for a few years now.

      I’d probably label Larger Than Death a mystery, though it has little on-the-page gore/stabby parts like some mysteries that get darker (Kathy Reichs immediately comes to mind). Not cozy, though.

      Jo’s research does not impact her job. She had headed to Nina’s after submitting vacation time to visit her friend, which turns into bereavement time. Jo’s employer sense her man Jeeves-type to assist Jo, which shows great kindness on the employer’s part, and I hope that woman plays a larger role in future books.

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