Chicklit Pulp Fiction – When Novels Are So Bad, They’re Good

I don’t read a lot of pulp novels. There are so many great books being written all the time, it’s all I can do to keep up with new releases while fulfilling my desire for the “must-read” classics. The Corinna Chapman series by Australian author Kerry Greenwood is neither new nor classic, nor especially… good, but I am addicted to it as surely as I am addicted to chocolate or potato chips.

Greenwood is better known for the Phryne Fisher Murder Mysteries series. Converted to an Australian television series a few years ago, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries has just completed its third season for a total of 34 episodes, many of which are true to Greenwood’s original novels. While Phryne madness hasn’t yet hit North America (the first two seasons are available on Acorn and Netflix), I’m predicting that we will soon go crazy for “Mees Fishah”, especially if the much-discussed US version ever happens.

In any case, I figured that if Greenwood was behind the creation of my favourite show and style icon, surely her mystery series about a baker would be right up my alley.

chapman_delightsFirst impressions, however, are poor. The cover of the first book, Earthly Delights, looks like it was made in that sad little photo-editing program that comes with MS Office. (Newer printings have more contemporary and coherent covers). The writing is stilted, switches tense regularly, and doesn’t have a lot of mystery when it comes right down to it. There are many references to Australian politics of the day, which not only date the work but make it difficult for non-Aussies to get the jokes.

Protagonist Corinna Chapman finds a junkie in the alley behind her bakery, then another who she ends up taking on as an assistant. The handsome Daniel, who works security with a soup truck for homeless people, sweeps her off her feet, and together they try to discover who is killing the local junkies with pure heroin. There’s witches and Goths and a cross-dressing dominatrix and a surly police inspector and someone is leaving horrible letters for all the women in Corinna’s apartment building. Given the manner in which the Miss Fisher mysteries tie up so nicely, I’d have expected these story elements to interweave. They don’t. And the main Goth is called Lestat, so unless you remember that it was written in 1992, it comes off as if Greenwood’s research into the subculture was reading a Wikipedia entry.

Weirdly, Greenwood didn’t publish the second novel in the series until 2005, although the time frame puts the two books only a couple of weeks apart. In that one, the plot revolves around floppy discs versus the cutting edge technology of “thumb drives” (USB sticks).

Oh, and there’s an apartment building full of eccentric neighbours, none of whom are especially fleshed-out, and a good quarter of the book is about Chapman’s cats. (Just wait, there’s even more cats in the second book.) Plus the climax contains a plot twist (drinking blood from a junkie in a Goth club with no repercussions or even acknowledgement of the health risks) that is so out there that I can’t believe someone – a friend or editor – didn’t point it out to keep it from being included. Especially given when it was written.

Yet… I tore through Earthly Delights and devoured the second book Heavenly Pleasures (yes, the titles are lame, particularly when compared with the Miss Fisher series) about someone sabotaging product at a local chocolate shop. I assured myself two was all I needed to read, after all – they weren’t very good, and the second book adds even more characters (and cats) who still need fleshing out with identifiable personalities (the cats might have more detailed personalities than the people). But just now I found myself searching the Toronto Public Library site with the intention of putting the additional books on hold and was disappointed to discover that they don’t have the rest of the series.

For books I claim not to like, I surely do seem to want to read the things.

The thing is, Greenwood’s books, while sloppy, are exactly what they need to be. Pulp novels with a touch of mystery, a dash of romance, an unlikely heroine (Corinna Chapman is proudly fat and middle-aged), a bit of sex (not too much, and not too graphic in most cases), and food.

Nobody will ever compare them with Colette or Woolf or Atwood, or even, if we’re honest, to the author’s Miss Fisher series, although I suspect that Greenwood’s reference to “minions and underlings” on her Facebook page might put her in the same category as Anne Rice, who has a team of “angels” who help her write – how else could Greenwood be turning out a couple of novels a year and still practice law?

The Corinna Chapman series would fall exactly into what most people refer to as “beach reads” – a lightweight (physically), light-hearted novel with lots of (cliched) lady-friendly elements (cats, chocolate, SM fantasies). I’d totally grab one of these at an airport bookstore if I came across it while looking for something not too intense to read on a plane (speaking of pulp novels found in airport bookstores, won’t someone PLEASE reprint the Diva/Alba series by Delacorta??).

Greenwood’s series reminds me that not everything has to be stern and serious. Sometimes it’s good to read something a bit fluffy and imperfect – and sweet, just for fun.