Author: Kathryn Miller Haines
Genre: Mystery, Historical, Young Adult
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
Publication date: July 2011
Paperback: 352 pages
Iris Anderson is only 15, but she’s quickly mastering the art of deception in this YA novel for fans of Veronica Mars.
It’s the Fall of 1942 and Iris’s world is rapidly changing. Her Pop is back from the war with a missing leg, limiting his ability to do the physically grueling part of his detective work. Iris is dying to help, especially when she discovers that one of Pop’s cases involves a boy at her school. Now, instead of sitting at home watching Deanna Durbin movies, Iris is sneaking out of the house, double crossing her friends, and dancing at the Savoy till all hours of the night. There’s certainly never a dull moment in the private eye business.
Stand alone or series: First book in The Girl is Murder series
How did we get this book: We both bought our copies of the book
Format (e- or p-): Print
NY. It’s 1942, the United States is now fighting World War II and 15-year-old Iris Anderson’s family is one of its first casualties. Her mother – a German immigrant – committed suicide just as her father was returning from Pearl Harbour with a missing leg. Now working as a private eye, he struggles with the more physical aspects of his detective work and his cases as suffering for it. Iris observes this, dying to help, understanding that money is sparse and their situation is extremely precarious – their financial woes resulting on their move to the Lower East Side where Iris is about to start public school.
When Iris discovers that one of her father’s new cases involves a missing boy from her new school, she steps in to try and help, no matter what it takes.
The Girl is Murder is not exactly what I was expecting. It’s more of a coming-of-age story in a historical setting against the backdrop of a socially diverse NY as opposed to the straightforward detective noir story the cover and blurb led me to believe it would be. It was actually a very surprising read and one that I enjoyed immensely.
The driving force of the novel is Iris, and her attempts to help her father. I liked Iris’ arc: dealing with the death of her mother, trying to find a way to communicate with her stand-offish father, attempting to understand her identity as a German Jewish Girl in the midst of a War against Germany are only but a few sides of the story. Then you have the question of her becoming a girl-detective: starting with her impetuous behaviour that was at first reckless (leading to a botched first case investigation) but which led to eventually learning the ropes of the business with each subsequent action. Part of it is about understanding how to read people and to act around them. And it is very interesting to see Iris dealing with the ethical aspects of this job – there is an inordinate amount of lying, deceiving and misdirecting that she must do. She approaches different groups of students – from both sides of the tracks and effectively uses them as she pretends to be their friend. Part of her arc is also dealing with the repercussions of those actions as real friendship bonds inevitably occur. The point is Iris starts as a very earnest young girl whose motivations are understandable but whose actions are not honourable – and at times it is hard not to question her genuineness when it comes to the bonds she develops and the feelings she professes to have for some of her new friends. But I think this questioning is in-keeping with her developing personality. She is not an entirely likeable character either and her tendency to blame other people for her own problems and mistakes as well as her judgemental side when it came to Pearl (a friend who happens to be fat) were definitely off-putting yet understandable as character traits.
What made this such a winning read for me though was its complex portrayal of this historical NY and its inhabitants. As Iris investigates the case of the missing students she ends up visiting different parts of town and interacting with all sorts of people in different social situations. From racial tensions featuring immigrants and POC to the social divide between the Upper Side and the Lower Side, it is all woven into the narrative. I also thought it was really interesting to see the way that Iris’ Jewish family have been divided – her father adopted a different name and moved away from traditions whereas her uncle still proudly visits the temple. I loved that the girls in the novel were generally portrayed positively, regardless of background. The answer to the main mystery of the novel is extremely simple but all the more poignant for its simplicity and the conflation of personal tragedy with a larger political/social climate. The setting is also brought to life via its use of language and as such this is a slang-filled book but much less so than the recent The Diviners by Libba Bray for example.
There are clear parallels to the TV show Veronica Mars too. You know: teenage daughter whose mother is gone and who works with her father as a sleuth. But there are significant differences as well: whereas Mars was already a hard-boiled girl-detective when her story starts, Iris is only but starting to learn the ropes of the business; Iris and her father have a very difficult, tense relationship and those differences are enough for me to see this as homage rather than a rip-off.
On the flip-side, some characters are definitely under-developed (Iris’ surprising romantic interest gets very few lines) and some even clichéd (like Iris’ amicable and uber devoted landlady). Not to mention that Iris – and to some extent even the narrative – had an unfortunate obsession with Pearl’s eating habits. Fat shaming is not cool, book.
In the end, I really enjoyed The Girl is Murder and I will definitely read the sequel The Girl is Trouble.
We are on a ROLL here at Casa de Smuggler – I can echo Ana’s sentiments, almost to the letter. The Girl is Murder is a fun book, richly detailed with an eye for historical accuracy and nuance (down to the clothes and slang, baby), with an interestingly conflicted band of characters. The mystery angle is reminiscent of Nancy Drew – teenage gumshoe investigating crime, but with more of an edge (and less of the brilliant skills/insight) than my favorite strawberry-haired sleuth of childhood reading years.
The real standout feature of The Girl is Murder, to me, is the level of detail and historical setting for 1940s New York City. Iris and her father have fallen from society and prestigious private school on the Upper East Side and have moved down the city to the Lower East Side, where Iris is forced to attend – horror of horrors – public school. The differences between the more homogeneous (read: white, privileged, wealthy) UES and the bustling multi-ethnic and much lower income LES is an eye-opening contrast, detailed through Iris’ narration. For the first time, Iris (who has long hidden the fact that she is Jewish from everyone) interacts with people of color, people who are living beneath the poverty line, immigrants, and workers. The tensions that play out between the Upper and Lower East sides, the divide between money and poverty, and the tensions across racial lines are fascinating, genuinely detailed. In particular, the tensions between soldiers on brief shore leave and their attitudes towards Zoot Suiters (even though the two characters in this book are Italian and not the Mexican Zoot Suiters of the infamous west coast riots) is eye-opening, both for Iris and for contemporary readers.
The overall mystery aspect of the book – that is, the disappearance of Tom and his whereabouts – is, unfortunately, somewhat weaker in comparison. The Girl is Murder is much more about Iris, her relationships with her father and friends, and the adjustment she goes through emotionally to her new life, than it is a proper nail-biting mystery. On that note, the actual resolution to the main conflict of the book (Tom’s whereabouts and reasons for disappearing) feels a little…under-cooked. I’m not sure it makes sense, WHY a certain character would act the way they did (barring supreme psychopathy), but therein lie spoilers.
Then, of course, there are the characters. First person narrator Iris has a distinct and very genuine sounding voice, but she’s not really a likable character. Which is perfectly fine, because as Ana says, her arc involves Iris lying to basically everyone, using her “friends” – everyone from the Rainbows gang, new “best friend” Pearl, and former bestie Grace on the Upper East Side – to get the answers she wants. I do like that Iris is forced to pay the consequences of her manipulations, though, and she does grow impressively over the course of the book. That said, there are some things that bothered me with regards to Iris, and some of her other friends in the book – especially the characters of Pearl and Josephine. As Ana mentions, there is some deeply uncomfortable fat shaming that happens in this book – from the first conversation Iris has with her supposed new “best friend” Pearl, she is repulsed by Iris’s eating habits, drawing attention to Iris cramming whole cookies into her mouth, the fat roll that is poking above her hemline and so on. This is not cool, and is exacerbated as in practically every interaction between Iris and Pearl, Iris makes a point of something about Pearl’s eating or size in her narrative. Needless to say, I was very disturbed by this. (The good news is that Pearl is a much better friend than Iris deserves and is NOT made into a monster or envious sidekick – in fact, it becomes glaringly apparent that Iris is it judgmental, subconsciously cruel one of the pair.) In the same vein, Iris is so quick to judge Josephine (the scholarship student – the HORROR! – who has a rough past) as guilty of murder based almost entirely on Josephine’s rougher upbringing, which feels deeply hypocritical and wrong. Believable, given Iris’s character, but frustrating in the extreme.
Ultimately, I think The Girl is Murder is still a good book, with strong attention to historical setting and gutsy characterization – in that the main character is actually unlikeable for so much of the novel. The mystery angle is soft, but all in all, I enjoyed the read (always keeping in mind the problems in the text, though). I’ll likely continue with the series, but with a wary eye.
FROM THE MOMENT I entered the doors of P.S. 110, I was dodging, ducking, and holding my breath, hoping that whatever I just saw would pass by without doing me harm. The kids were rough in the way that feral cats were rough; it was like they were fighting to survive and didn’t give a damn what it took to make that happen. Public school was exactly what I imagined trench warfare was like. More than once one of them locked eyes with me and I got the feeling that if I didn’t move NOW they would pounce on me and eat me for lunch. I stayed close to the tan-colored walls, my hand always on the plaster, like a mouse looking for a hole I could disappear into.
“Outta the way, meat.” A girl in a too-tight cardigan cut across my path, sending me toward a row of lockers. Two boys holding each other in a headlock forced me in the other direction, until I bumped into a box set aside to collect tin cans. I pictured myself tumbling headfirst into the metal scraps, but I was lucky. Not only did I stay on my feet, but the box was empty. Apparently, nobody here had time to collect aluminum and tin for the war.
I backed away from the box and checked to see who had witnessed my stumble. Only the poster above the empty collection bin acknowledged my presence. WANTED FOR VICTORY, it announced in bold type. WASTE PAPER, OLD RAGS, SCRAP METAL, OLD RUBBER. GET IN THE SCRAP! Only someone had altered the last line with a pencil, so that the wanted items now included bloody rags. Conveniently, they’d also drawn a picture indicating what part of the female anatomy those rags might come from, just in case you were confused.
I tried to hide my shock and ducked into the girls’ bathroom, hoping to catch my breath in the privacy of a stall. The doors were missing, though. A blonde in a sloppy joe sweater sat on the radiator by the window, smoking a cigarette. She didn’t even shift her position when I came in. If anything, she seemed annoyed that I had interrupted her.
“What?” she said as I stared dumbly at the sight of someone smoking–smoking–on school property.
“Nothing,” I said. “I have to … use the facilities.”
“The facilities? You in the wrong place, meat?”
At first I misunderstood her–was she saying that the bathroom was not in fact the place where one relieved herself? But then I realized that her question had a different purpose: why was I in this school to begin with?
“No,” I said. “I’m new.”
Ana: 7 – Very Good
Thea: 6 – Good, Recommended with Reservations
Reading Next: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn