Earlier this spring, I was feeling a mystery. I like to read mysteries when I’m feeling unsettled, un-moored, or chaotic. That may seem counter-intuitive, given that mysteries often are built on chaos, violence, and even murder. However, there is a structure to mysteries: there is always a clear solution, and order is brought from the chaos. Unfortunately, none of my favorite mystery series had a new book out, my Agatha Christie novels weren’t calling to me, and I was feeling in a bit of a mystery rut. Suddenly in all of my book-related e-mails, Lili Wright’s thriller, Dancing with the Tiger, began to repeatedly appear, as if the book-iverse was responding to my need for a new mystery.
Wright’s novel traces Anna’s travels to Mexico to track down the recently unearthed death mask of Montezuma in order to restore the reputation of her father, a formerly world-renowned and now disgraced art expert and alcoholic, and to get back at her posh (and cheating) museum curator ex-fiance. She quickly realizes she is not the only one looking for the mask–a powerful drug lord, a suave and sinister American ex-pat collector, a Mexican museum curator, her sexy new boyfriend, and the meth-addled looter himself are all after this priceless and historic discovery. What follows is a mishmash of sex, hyper-violence, drugs, adventure, bribery, art, and a battle for honor, family, and identity.
Sounds cool, right?
This book was…meh. Disappointing. Blah. An Edgar nominee who did not live up to its designation as “suspenseful” and that the Kirkus review called, “well-written but seriously undisciplined,” which I feel is highly accurate. (It is also one of the most delightfully snarky reviews I’ve ever read and is much more concise than this one will be.) Honestly, there is no mystery, no suspense. Everything is shown–you know exactly who has the mask at every point throughout the novel, and even the murders contain no surprise. Nothing surprises. Maybe it should be classified more as an adventure thriller, but it’s not really thrilling nor adventurous, so maybe I’m just suffering from dashed hopes amidst false advertising.
I also often experience a viscerally negative reaction against the trope of “edgy, hard-drinking girl who needs to get her shit together so she goes on a quest and finds she only needs love from a good man as opposed to a bad man.” That is absolutely what I experienced here. Anna is not at all likable. She makes perpetually bad decisions, despite knowing she shouldn’t make those decisions. She makes snap judgments, says stupid stuff that actually gets her abducted, and falls into the cliche of assuming her new boyfriend’s beautiful sister is his other girlfriend and refusing to talk to him about why she’s mad. Not that a character has to be likable. I have loved completely unlikable characters before. The problem here is that she is so tropey and inauthentic that she’s just irritating. I don’t want to spend a whole book with her. I want her to stop being an idiot and go home. Every choice she makes is somehow born out of needing to prove to a man (her ex-fiance, her father, her boyfriend) that she has value, but there is nothing to latch onto behind that lack of self-worth. And so her behavior, her choices, her whole self just feel superficial and edgy for edgy’s sake. (Kirkus agrees with me.)
The other characters all feel very superficial as well. Wright alternates the perspective of each chapter from character to character, but there are so many that it’s almost impossible to get to know any character, let alone Anna, in any real way. Everyone feels very shallow, very archetypal as if they are filling a pre-determined role. In fact, Wright gives only some of the characters names, instead defining the characters and their chapters by their role or job: The Looter, The Gardner, The Housekeeper. Some of them just disappear with no explanation. Others come out of nowhere. The looter gains a girlfriend about 2/3 of the way through who really has very little impact on him or the story, and their coupling feels more like Wright decided she needed to fit that in rather than an authentic relationship. Maybe Wright was trying to do too much with the plot and various motivations, but for everything that happens and every character we meet, this novel feels so surface-level and stereotypical. Even the Spanish interspersed throughout the text feels more Spanish language primer than natural language use.
The novel moves very quickly, but I honestly didn’t want to read it. It was well-written–Wright knows her structure–but it often read more like a writing exercise than a well-crafted novel. It felt like a chore to read, and I was glad when I was done. So why finish it? I don’t really know. I guess I read it so you don’t have to.