I read a lot. It’s just sort of part of who I am. Heck, since I started writing reviews (at the beginning of 2004), I’ve read over 1,100 books. And I don’t mention that to brag, but to say this: over that time, I’ve learned more and more about what I love in a book, and what I hate. And while there are certain things that instantly can win me over – heist stories, to name one – there are a few that instantly set me off, and can make it hard for a book to ever win me back over. And unfortunately, Death by Diploma contains a slew of them. And that’s a shame, because I think, if I were a different person, I’d probably like this a lot more than I do.
Let’s start with the most obvious flaw in the book – the one that even its defenders seem to acknowledge – and the first of things that really set me off as a reader. I hate, hate, hate written-out accents in books. I can think of only a handful of cases where it’s worked for me – Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting is an obvious one, as well as Hagrid in the Harry Potter books – and far, far more where it becomes distracting, irritating, and an annoyance. And the “southern” accent deployed by Kelley Kaye’s heroine, Emma, definitely falls into the latter case. For one thing, the entirety of her accent is replacing the word “I” with the word “Ah”. That’s it. No vocabulary, no phrases, no other accents. Just the one word, and only when she remembers to do it, which is hit and miss. That means that a) it’s an incredibly unconvincing accent (and I say this as someone who’s lived in Tennessee since birth), b) massively inconsistent, and c) incredibly distracting from the dialogue, since you can’t get used to it. It’s a poor choice on the author’s part, and one that really grated on me whenever it appeared.
But then, we get into areas that just don’t work for me. See, Death by Diploma is a cozy set in a Colorado high school, and Emma, our heroine, is a new teacher. And when the school’s janitor is found murdered, Emma and her new best friend Leslie start investigating the crime and trying to figure out who wanted Melvin dead. And we come to my first personal issue with this book: this is the most irritating, dysfunctional, unbelievable, implausible high school I’ve ever read. According to her biography, Ms. Kaye worked as a high school teacher for 20 years, and that’s awesome. But there’s not one bit of this that seems plausible to me, starting from the first moments, where our brand-new, attractive teacher gets catcalled and turns it into an inspirational moment about how to get a date and believing in yourself. It’s hilariously cheesy, and gets to my biggest issue with the book: I don’t buy this as a school, which means I don’t buy the setting, and I certainly don’t buy the characters. And maybe that’s me as a teacher – I’ve been teaching for almost 15 years now – and so you can disregard it. But I didn’t buy these ladies as teachers, and I didn’t buy where they worked.
Which, in turn, brings me maybe to my second personal problem. I don’t think I like cozy mysteries. It’s nothing against the genre, exactly; it’s that it brings out the “quirky” side of writers, and I find contrived quirkiness grating in the extreme. (That I can still love Wes Anderson movies is because his entire universe makes the quirk essential, not contrived; it’s the juxtaposition of the “real” world and quirk that I hate.) This book contains a former circus performer, a skateboarding principal, a librarian who bursts into tears at imaginary offenses, teachers who blatantly sexually harass teachers in an instantly-fireable way, and one man who apparently has tricked everyone into thinking he works at the school. This all comes back to the last paragraph, but again, none of this works. The characters are contrived, the setting unconvincing, and since all of that leads to the mystery, I found myself spending most of the book irritated and rolling my eyes.
Look: a lot of people like Death by Diploma, and in different circumstances, I might too. If I didn’t work at a school, if I was more open to quirky cozies and characters, if the Southern accent didn’t ring false to my Tennessee ears…if, if, if. And I think Kaye has some promise, and some good moments, and a couple of great heroines. I just think she needs some restraint, an editor, and someone to rein in her worst impulses.