07 Feb 2006
One problem a mystery writer faces when creating an amateur detective is dealing with the suspension of disbelief. Given the sheer number of police departments and private investigative firms, why should someone in trouble turn to Miss Marple, or the owner of a bed-and-breakfast, or the caterer?
By creating Zack Hunter — a stunningly handsome actor who was once starred as a sheriff on a nighttime soap opera — Margaret Chittenden solved that problem with a clever bit of borrowing from real life. After all, if given the opportunity, who wouldn’t want to hire Perry Mason or Mannix to take their case?
But the star of Chittenden’s series is actually Chaps, a country and western nightclub located near San Francisco. An odd place for this kind of club, but where else would cowboys in leather chaps and dances like the “Tush Push” be properly appreciated?
Hunter is a co-owner of Chaps along with Charlie Plato, who, with her frizzy red hair and bosom-less figure, feels she can’t compete for the affections of the star. That she does most of the investigative work — with Zack using his good looks to help open doors — also rankles her.
In “Dead Beat and Deadly,” the third book in the series, a husband suspected in the murder of his wife asks Hunter and Plato to help find the real killer. Plato feels something of a personal obligation, as the woman had attended a daytime self-defense class taught at Chaps and had dropped hints that she was being abused.
Chittenden learned her trade as a romance novelist, and “Dead Beat” reads at times like a Harlequin with blood. But while the mystery side moves toward its inevitable resolution, no such hope is given for the relationship between Charlie and Zack, which remain frustratingly rooted in cement. Charlie’s repeated declarations of repressed heat for the handsome actor become depressingly repetitive, and Chittenden mistakes interruptions for the dance of intimacy.