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.