‘The Roar of the Crowd’ by Janice MacDonald

The Roar of the Crowd coverReviewed by Andrew S. Balfour 

I will admit, I’m generally not a fan of the cozy mystery. It’s a personal preference, but I’ll take Marlowe over Marple any day. I’ve tried to set that prejudice aside for this review, and I believe I’ve succeeded, for the most part. The Roar of the Crowd, by Janice MacDonald, is very close to a textbook example of the cozy subgenre, complete with a middle-aged amateur sleuth and a heavy focus on the author’s personal interests. In the name of fairness, I will suggest that not sharing those interests is a large part of why I didn’t find the book terribly compelling.

This is the latest in an ongoing series following Randy Craig, theatre buff and self-described “gypsy academic”. Randy finds herself embroiled in her latest mystery when her best friend Denise is suspected in the murder of a famous television actress. Determined to clear Denise’s name, Randy must navigate the treacherous waters of Edmonton’s theatre community and find a killer hiding among people who make careers out of misdirection.

 That, at least, is what I gathered from the book’s synopsis. In reality, the murder mystery seems like a secondary concern for much of the story. For the first two hundred pages, MacDonald puts the bulk of her effort into educating the reader on the ins and outs of the Edmonton theatre scene, and the city of Edmonton itself. The question of who killed whom is only addressed in Randy’s innermost thoughts, and the occasional conversation with Denise.

It makes sense to focus on the theatre angle, of course. Apart from a trio of police detectives, everyone involved in the story is an actor, a director, or a stage manager, and theatre provides the essential background to the mystery. But the key word here is “background”. With more time spent on Randy’s summer job running a Shakespearian day camp than is spent trying to solve the murder, the story feels more than a little imbalanced.

Balance is important in any story, and is the single defining weakness of The Roar of the Crowd. The author wouldn’t need to change very much to even things out. The plot would have so much more room to breathe if she spent less time listing the multitude of theatre troupes in Edmonton, or meticulously detailing the route Randy takes to an awards show. I’m not suggesting that she should do away with the details altogether; local flavour is a vital piece of the story’s personality. But the book could have been a hundred pages shorter, if only MacDonald had practiced a little moderation, and the story wouldn’t have lost a thing.

Along with needlessly detailed descriptions of the set dressing, MacDonald relies heavily on my least favourite narrative crutch: repetition. It’s perfectly understandable that Randy would make note of Denise’s remarkable attractiveness and effortless appeal to the men around her. However, describing her as “my beautiful friend” three or four times in the first half of the book is excessive, as is having restaurant servers stare admiringly at Denise every time she and Randy go for lunch. Similarly, mentioning that the Mayfield Dinner Theatre owes much of its success to the buffet menu is a perfectly reasonable background observation. Making the same observation twice in six pages is unnecessary at best.

It’s not just the tedium of repetition that annoys me. Yes, it’s boring to read the same thing twice in one book, but it’s also kind of insulting. Bringing up the same point over and over suggests to me that the author doesn’t expect me to remember what I just read a few pages ago. If the author isn’t giving me more credit than I would give to the average goldfish, I’m going to have some difficulty enjoying her work.

 I’ve been pretty hard on MacDonald so far, but I would hate to give the impression that I’ve got nothing nice to say about The Roar of the Crowd. The book finds its footing in the second half, bringing the mystery back into the spotlight with a second suspicious death. The remainder of the story sees Randy’s attention fully focused on proving her friend’s innocence by finding the real killer, whom she is convinced is a member of the theatre community. It really is a well-crafted whodunit, once that part of the story gets the attention it deserves. Its twists and turns seem deliberately understated, and nothing feels contrived or out of place.

Critics often say that a good mystery gives readers an opportunity to solve it for themselves, without making the solution too obvious. On that point, MacDonald has succeeded admirably. The murderer’s identity, when finally revealed, makes perfect sense. I did have it figured out before the denouement, but it wasn’t so easy that I felt cheated, despite a relatively narrow field of suspects. I would have preferred a bit more suspense before the climax, but that might have been out of place in a story as down-to-earth as this one. Randy doesn’t seem like a character built for suspense.

Speaking of characters, I must admit that I misjudged MacDonald in the early chapters, with particular regard to her character work. Randy is without a doubt the archetypal cozy mystery protagonist; a middle-aged amateur who finds herself embroiled in mysteries when they intersect with her specialized interests. She’s even dating a police detective, which seems to be a rite of passage for cozy sleuths. It would have been easy to write her off as a cliché, but the author proved me wrong by infusing Randy’s life with depth and detail that elevate her beyond the generic. She feels like a real person, and the rest of the book’s cast shares that spark of life.

I’m afraid of going into too much detail regarding the other characters, lest I accidentally reveal the killer to potential readers, but I will point out another character I thoroughly misread when first introduced: Detective Jennifer Gladue. On their first meeting, Randy writes the no-nonsense detective off as an ice queen and a potential rival for boyfriend Steve’s affection. I assumed that was all there was to Gladue, until she and Randy found themselves sharing a cup of tea and bonding over mystery novels. As Randy realizes her error in judging the detective, Gladue’s character grows beyond the stereotypical humourless cop we assumed her to be. That new understanding carries through to the end of the book, putting Gladue in an unexpected role as Randy’s most stalwart supporter. That’s the kind of writing that separates real characters from people-shaped cutouts.

It’s obvious that I have mixed feelings about this book. The narrative is bloated and frequently repetitive, but underneath the excess lies a genuinely compelling mystery and a well-written cast of characters.  It’s not something I would have read on my own initiative, but that speaks more to my own personal taste than the quality of the book. It probably would have done more for me if I was a little more interested in live theatre, likewise if I was even slightly familiar with Edmonton. But there’s nothing wrong with having a niche, and Janice MacDonald knows her audience. If you’re looking for a distinctly Canadian mystery with a theatrical spin, you could do much worse than adding The Roar of the Crowd to your bookshelf.

Turnstone | 376 pages |  $16.95 | paper | ISBN # 978-0888014702

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