One of the joys of this past, very difficult summer was finally getting to read the Meg Langslow series by Donna Andrews.
I’d picked up the first, third, and fifth book at a bookstore months ago, but between reading in three genres for a contest and reading for the review site I work for and reading for the research on my own books, they kept getting bumped to the bottom of the line.
But then, this summer, I needed something fun. And this series was recommended to me by several people whose reading tastes I trust as fun.
They were right.
Once I started, I couldn’t stop. I laughed a lot. When I first found out Michael was an actor, I was worried that it would be yet another of those clichés by someone who never bothered to research what real actors and real productions go through.
I needn’t have worried. Donna knows what she writes about. Except for the parrots and the monkeys, the convention in WE’LL ALWAYS HAVE PARROTS is far too familiar to me, and I recommended it to several colleagues who felt the same way.
Meg is fun, funny, resourceful, and gives a damn. She’s both exasperated by and protective of her family. She steps up – but what makes the series work so well is that they do, too. They might dump a lot of chaos on her, but they don’t walk away. They roll up their sleeves and dig in. The family might be eccentric, but they function by always pitching in for each other, and always giving each other room.
Meg is sensible, even though she’s not perfect. The characters even joke about the “Too Stupid To Live” syndrome in many books, where the character takes stupid chances that anyone with a brain can see will put them in peril. Meg calculates her risks. She does what she needs to do, but she doesn’t do it out of stupidity. Which makes her a character you can trust, like, and want to take a journey that is now twenty-three books.
I regularly put down books where the character is annoying, doesn’t learn from mistakes, and is so dumb I want her to be the next victim. It’s often marketed as comic and the character as “wacky” or “eccentric” when, in reality, the character is stupid.
On the flip side, I’ve had editors tell me to dumb down a character because she’s “too smart and too independent. Readers don’t want a character smarter than they are. They want to feel superior to the protagonist.”
Not in my case. I want the protagonist to be smarter and more resourceful. Donna and Meg both deliver. Andrews respects her readers.
Yes, she gets into funny, outrageous situations and comes up with equally outrageous solutions. But everything is so well grounded, that when the books take off (to use the bird puns used in the titles), the reader is willing to make the leap.
Meg also is in actual peril in the climactic sequence of the books. SHE is the one who faces down the murderer and saves herself, even with the police and her family coming to the rescue. SHE saves herself. She doesn’t wait around for someone else (or she’d be dead, and fall into the Too Stupid to Live category). Even when she’s in dire straits and knows her best bet is to keep the murderer talking or otherwise distracted until help gets there, she’s never passive about it.
Which makes her even more endearing.
In the past few years, I’ve noted more and more, especially in cozies, that climactic action takes place off the page. The protagonist is never in any real danger. The stakes aren’t life-and-death. Or, if they are, the reader doesn’t get to experience it with the character. It’s tossed off in a narrative paragraph later on. I always feel cheated.
Having Meg central to every solution and giving the reader odd, over-the-top, funny, but STILL DANGEROUS climactic sequences means that the reader gets to take the entire ride with the character and is there for the payoff. It’s satisfying.
And then there’s the breath after it, the resolution, that ends on an upbeat note.
Which leads the reader into the next book, while each book stands solidly alone.
I worry that Meg too often pushes her own blacksmithing work to the side and doesn’t draw boundaries with her family and now her community. I jumped up and down cheering when she finally said, “No.” I don’t have my reading log with me as I write this, but I made a note of it in the writing log! (I think it’s SWAN FOR THE MONEY).
I didn’t get to read the books in order, so it was sometimes like putting together a fun puzzle. But it was a joy. It was such a pleasure to read book after book, to visit Meg’s world at the end of a tough day, and feel rewarded by spending time with people who were smart, funny, and gave a damn. Now I’m going to buy the twenty-three books I don’t own in the series, and then sit down and read them all again – in order!