Dec 26, 2008

Hex: a mystery book rec

A Ruby Murphy Mystery
by Maggie Estep
Published: 2003

Like I said back when we covered The Alibi Man, I'm not one for mysteries or cop drama. But I bought this book and its sequel years ago. Go figure. Maggie Estep isn't exactly your typical mystery/thriller writer, so Hex has that going for it. However, it is, for all intents and purposes, essentially a first novel. So it's got that going against it. Let's take a look at the summary.
Having drifted through thirty-three years of life, Ruby Murphy has put down roots in a rootless place: Coney Island. A recovering alcoholic who is fanatical in her love for animals and her misanthropic friends, Ruby lives above a furniture store and works at the musty Coney Island Museum. One day, Ruby is on the subway heading into Manhattan when the train stalls between stations. An elegant blond woman with a scarred face strikes up a conversation, and a misunderstanding between the two women leads to an offer Ruby decides she can't refuse. The woman needs her boyfriend followed, and she thinks Ruby is the woman to do it -- and do it right.

Ruby's life has been flat and painful lately. The Coney Island Museum isn't doing much business, Ruby's live-in boyfriend has moved out, and her best friend Oliver is battling cancer. Ruby agrees to follow the woman's boyfriend, Frank, a man who works at Belmont Racetrack and seems to hang out in odd places with bad company. Ruby soon finds herself pushed headfirst into horse racing's seamy underbelly. This is a dangerous world where nothing is as it appears, and people and horses seem to have limited life spans. When Ruby finds herself staring down the barrel of a loaded gun, she beings to have second thoughts.

Only now it's far too late.
What's good about this story is it's mainly populated by a bunch of quirky characters, and Ruby is not at all a Mary Sue turned hard ass. She's mostly just an eccentric, who loves Coney Island, horses, and the piano. The book is told entirely in the first person, but it switches viewpoints between Ruby and other characters: her piano teacher, her friend with cancer, a groom at Belmont, an assistant trainer at Belmont, and Ruby's neighbor. So it's attempting to give you strings of the main plot through people who don't necessarily know what the hell is going on. The good thing about this is it saves Ruby from being a complete author insert, but it slows the whole thing down until the most interesting stuff happens in the last four chapters. You'll find yourself skimming through some of the extraneous crap, because try as I might, I couldn't bring myself to care that much about Ruby's neighbor's girlfriend's bad breast implants, which take up more of the book than I remembered.

Anyway, the book opens up with Ruby on her way to her piano lesson. The train is stuck on the tracks, and to pass the time a blond woman strikes up a conversation with a less than willing Ruby. To be a jerk, Ruby tells the woman she's a private investigator and wow, what a shock, this woman desperately needs a private investigator. Try as she might, Ruby cannot escape the woman's desperate pleas for help, even after Ruby levels with her that she is not anything remotely resembling a private investigator. This doesn't not dampen the woman's spirits, and before you know it Ruby is hired to follow around Frank, a possibly cheating boyfriend.

Is Frank cheating? Really, no one really needs a private investigator to figure this out. Ruby is of this mindset the entire time, so I appreciate that. Of course Frank is cheating. Frank is also a groom at Belmont, so in order to get Ruby closer to the action, the woman (Ariel, who has spent all her money on developing a hybrid orchid and is not at all mentally well) pulls strings and gets Ruby a job as a hotwalker for a trainer at Belmont. This should be your first tip that things aren't right with Ariel, but it's so subtle you'd never really see it until later. Ruby meets Ned, assistant trainer, and they begin dating eventually, but things turn horribly wrong when Ruby begins to suspect him of suspicious behavior after someone Frank was carrying on with dies at the track. Mainly this involves her seeing him with a gun after they've had sex. Ruby reacts badly. Things spiral out of control from there, revealing Ariel's real motives and Ned's real identity. The FBI come along, and things end with Ned (or Edward, as he is actually known) patching things up with Ruby, Ned calling in favors to find a crazy Russian woman who stole his kitten, and Ruby going on a wild ride on an ex-race horse.

Anyway, I'm not going too in depth on this one because that would ruin the suspense. It's a good book, although it gets stuck in places with characters that aren't exactly relevent to the plot. I think this is rectified in the sequel. The racetrack scenes are fantastic in this book, so that's mainly why I'm reccing it. And it's not totally ridiculous, and I like FBI agents. So, consider this recced.

This is a trilogy, Gargantuan and Flamethrower following Hex. Maggie Estep has another horse racing book coming out in May called Alice Fantastic.

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