JUST in case books written by women haven't been shoehorned into enough marketing categories, there's a new one, coined in the Washington Post.
So-called pink mysteries are books by women that feature a female protagonist (miserable love life optional) who solves crimes while decked out in designer heels and expensive manicures. No hard-boiled detectives in trench coats please! Pink mysteries are the domain of tarty girlie-girls embroiled in sometimes zany but always pop-culturally conscious whodunits.
The latest of these is Susan Kandel's "Shamus in the Green Room," which details the further adventures of sassy Cece Caruso, whose obsession with vintage couture is equaled only by her passion for writing biographies of vintage (that would be dead) mystery writers.
As the novel opens, we learn that Cece's second book, a biography of Dashiell Hammett, was optioned for the movies eight years earlier by the hunky but vapid actor Rafe Simic and his movie company, In the Green Room. Finally, the Hammett story is slated for production.
Rafe is known for starring in skate punk flicks and schlocky ski movies with "ski bunnies in silhouette performing unseemly tricks with ski poles." He hopes an Oscar-worthy performance in "DASH!" will redeem his credibility as a thinking man's actor.
The problem is that the dim-witted Rafe is too lazy to do the necessary character research. So Cece is hired by Rafe's longtime best friend and business manager, Will Levander, to "coach" Rafe on the life and times of Hammett.
Cece, in her 1959 Pierre Balmain fur-trimmed wool pencil skirt and her Jackie O shades, boards a plane with Rafe to visit the San Francisco haunts made famous by the gloomy, heavy-drinking author of such noir classics as "The Maltese Falcon" and the Sam Spade short stories.
When they arrive, they are forced to dodge the actor's pesky fans and a sea of paparazzi, only to have to fly right back to Los Angeles because Rafe has just received word that he must identify a body.
They pull up to the morgue and, despite Cece's protests, both are escorted in to view the body. She steals a peek at the dead woman on a stainless-steel table and all she remembers seeing is "white. Lips drained of color. Hair like wintry branches. An endless expanse of cold milky, white flesh."
This passage is an example of some of the stark, tantalizing prose that pops up occasionally in the novel. But the smart central plot, which draws Cece into the entangled, dysfunctional drama of Rafe's sketchy past and his association with Will and the women in their lives, is sometimes bogged down by the overly chatty Cece and the too-tepid humor.
Equal parts Hammett biography and Los Angeles mystery, filled with glittery movie stars, surf punks and a spicy B-plot involving Cece's cop fiance, Peter Gambino, "Shamus in the Green Room" does have entertaining moments. In one wacky scene, Cece finds herself comforting Rafe's plump, New Agey ex-wife, proprietor of an eclectic gift shop on trendy 3rd Street.
Later, she drops in on the Orange County surf shop owned by a legendary board shaper, where the "smell of pot had been overtaken by the smell of dog." In her "clingy jersey dress, hip-slung silver belt, and brown suede boots" a la Ali MacGraw "circa 1971," she couldn't be more out of place.
Cece is funniest when she is most uncomfortable. Unfortunately, Kandel, who has written art reviews for The Times and edited an international art journal, tends to rely more on predictable Thomas Guide and freeway traffic jokes to push the story along. And some of her L.A. destinations, such as Griffith Park and Olvera Street, will seem ho-hum to veteran Angelenos. She makes up for it by sprinkling in fascinating, little-known biographical and historical tidbits about Hammett and his era that add surprising richness and elegance.
Kandel's two previous novels -- "Not a Girl Detective" (2005) and "I Dreamed I Married Perry Mason" (2004) -- paid homage to fictional girl sleuth Nancy Drew and real-life lawyer Erle Stanley Gardner, respectively. Literary luminaries and their characters seem to act as muse for her best writing. Kandel's affectionate tribute to Hammett is both poignant and edgy. When Cece finally realizes that it's time to toughen up and face the truth, both about the crime and about her rocky relationship with Gambino, she reaches for her Hammett biography, "The Man Who Wasn't There": "That was how I saw Hammett -- not as the thin man who was so insubstantial he had to stand in the same place twice to throw a shadow, but as someone far more elusive...."
Cece Caruso can be feisty and funny, a character often much smarter than the ignominious pink mystery label might suggest. If only Kandel had resisted the temptation to make her so "pink" and instead allowed her more time to connect with the bygone masters of mystery, readers might be rewarded with an even more urbane and thoughtful character.