Matt Forney
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Girl Detectives by Ann Sterzinger

The problem with reading a novelist’s first book after their later ones is that since most writers improve as they get older, you can’t help but view their earlier work in the context of what they’re putting out now. Flaws in their characterization and prose that have been smoothed over or eliminated in later works jut out like pilonidal cysts. Since first novels typically are more autobiographical than later ones, you have to resist viewing the book as an exercise in self-indulgence. Even if the book is really good—as is the case with talented writers—you’ll always think less of it than if you had read it with virgin eyes.

Girl Detectives is such a book.

I’ve heaped praise on Ann Sterzinger’s novels NVSQVAM (Nowhere) and The Talkative Corpse, but Girl Detectives isn’t on the same level as those books. It’s not a bad novel by any means—it’s funny, piercing and shows signs of Sterzinger’s later genius—but compared to her more recent work, it falls short. This shouldn’t stop you from reading it, but don’t expect it to blow your brains out of your skull.

Girl Detectives is half-slapstick mystery novel (think Chandler as adapted by the Coen brothers, with a dash of The Women-style bitterness), half-chronicle of the last days of print journalism. The plot centers around the primarily female employees of Chiculture (loosely based off of the Chicago Reader, where Sterzinger worked as a copyeditor) and how the murder of one of their colleagues changes their world for—haha, just kidding! They’re all a bunch of backstabbing twits:

Humph, the anticapitalist, had for years been, in his imagination, an experienced spokesman for experimental polygamous arrangements — though, until 1980, he had been the theoretical picture of traditional jealousy. Had he succeeded in undressing a girl back then, he would have been prepared to kill and eat any other male in her vicinity. But the dawn of the Reagan era found college-junior Humph escaping the American empire for Paris, where he studied the novel and alternative theories about sex. Greek love as proposed by a hygiene-challenged Canadian professor of the male sex had failed to take. But then Humph met a promising, heterosexual French writing student (now he was running his father’s business and failing to answer Humph’s letters) who had, with the help of a pair of prostitutes, patiently explained the correlation between the family unit and bourgeois wage slavery. Humph downed two bottles of wine during the lesson and woke the next day a certified, if vomiting, convert. However, if you judged the depth of Humph’s belief by his accomplished actions so far, he could have been the favorite nephew of a Victorian matron.

The characters at Chiculture are depicted with the sort of seething, comic resentment that can only be acquired from years working a shit job. There’s Maurinette Meede, the spoiled, bratty restaurant critic; Humph Moray, effete book critic and Maurinette’s squeeze; Sybil Sarta, the laughably unqualified, catty arts editor; and Kimmie Wrigley, the pretentious lefty rich girl whose murder sets the plot in motion:

Humph closed the book. “A monstrous gob of paint has interrupted the text at this point,” he improvised. He was about to go on, but then he noticed that her hand was on his knee and changed what he was about to say: “A gob of paint from your own rosy fingertips.” The hand climbed an inch, four, ten; he couldn’t recall what part of the book the fragment had come from, and he didn’t care.

Girl Detectives’ protagonist is Pill Dombrowski, Chiculture’s grouchy, alcoholic copyeditor and, along with Maurinette Meede, one of the suspects in Kimmie’s murder. Most of the book’s laughs come from Pill’s clashes with everyone else around her: her pretentious, phony colleagues, her useless leech of a brother, and the bumbling private eye Edgar Roger, hired by Kimmie’s parents to investigate her death. I suspect Sterzinger based Pill on herself, based on Pill’s position as copyeditor, her noticeably non-WASP, difficult-to-pronounce surname, and the fact that both of them are from Wisconsin.

So, all good so far. So what’s wrong with Girl Detectives?

Simply put, the book lacks bite. While it’s hilarious and gripping, the book doesn’t have the spark that NVSQVAM (Nowhere) and The Talkative Corpse do. Sterzinger plays with and subverts the tropes of detective fiction throughout the book, but her work never seems to rise above the level of pastiche. While Girl Detectives is roughly the same length as NVSQVAM, a lot of it (particularly in the opening chapters) feels like filler; more than once, I had to hold back the urge to jam my Kindle’s touch screen to skip to the next chapter. Additionally, while Sterzinger weaves a fairly intricate plot, the ending doesn’t hit you with any kind of oomph; the book just sort of grinds to a halt.

Put simply, reading Girl Detectives after NVSQVAM and The Talkative Corpse is like listening to the EPs My Bloody Valentine released with Paul Conway after listening to Loveless.

This is not to bash the book; for all its flaws, Girl Detectives is still a gripping and hilarious read. If you haven’t read any of Sterzinger’s other books, read this first. If you have read her other novels, go into Girl Detectives with an open mind. Nobody ever hit a home run the first time they got up to bat.

Click here to buy Girl Detectives.

Read Next: The Talkative Corpse: A Love Letter by Ann Sterzinger