The Thousand Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham (2014)
There has been so little time to read in the last few months that a book has to really catch and hold my attention for me to get past the first twenty pages, much less to the end. The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line did that, but maybe it was because I was already familiar with and invested in the protagonist and supporting cast of characters. If you have been a fan of the television series or got your first introduction to the world of Veronica Mars from the recent film, you should find a lot to like in this book. If you have no previous knowledge of the show or the film, you should also find something to like in the book, and rest assured that Thomas and Graham take care to make sure to fill you in on all the details of this world so that you know all the key players.
For those of you who saw the film, the summary on the back of the book is true to its word—the story begins about two months after the point where the film ends. We find Veronica Mars still living in Neptune, California and working as a private investigator in her father’s company, Mars Investigations. Veronica’s father, Keith, is still recovering from injuries sustained in a car crash and so it has been up to Veronica to keep the agency going. Veronica’s best friend Mac is still working as a kind of Girl Friday, but none of the work that has come their way so far has really tested her skills or paid the bills for that matter. The world of the novel is also much the same—Neptune is still a hotbed for police corruption and a place where the wealthy and privileged do whatever is necessary to hold onto what they have, while the 99% struggles to get by. It is also a world where the beautiful surfaces and facades hide the ugliness and decay that lie beneath and where very little is as it seems. The class divide is magnified in this novel by the time of year—it’s Spring Break, and for three weeks college students from all over the West flock to Neptune for parties, binge drinking, and debauchery. Thomas and Graham give the town the feel of Carnival and Las Vegas mixed together. Amid the Spring Break festivities, an eighteen-year-old student goes missing, and the owner of the Neptune Grand Hotel, Petra Landros, hires Veronica to find her. Petra is a member of the Neptune Chamber of Commerce, and her primary motive for hiring Veronica is to quiet the rising, negative media scrutiny that threatens the profit to be made during the Spring Break season. Veronica takes the case. To avoid spoilers, that’s all the summary you’re going to get. Well, I will tell you that Wallace, Weevil, and Logan all get page time, and Sheriff Lamb is still a thorn in Veronica’s side. There is also a surprise appearance by someone from Veronica’s past and believe me when I tell you I wasn’t expecting this person at all, and I’m definitely not going to be the person to spoil the surprise for you.
What I really want to talk about is the way the novel engages with the style of the classic hardboiled detective fiction story. Veronica is in many ways your typical hardboiled detective, and Neptune in many ways is your typical setting for a hardboiled novel. We’ve got the corrupt police, the beautiful landscape with a dirty underbelly that our detective must wade through while trying to stay clean herself. Yet it is also modern in that unlike classic hardboiled detectives, Veronica isn’t an isolated loner. She has her father and friends. She doesn’t have to do it all alone even though doing it all alone is her first inclination. The most significant way that the novel diverges from classic hardboiled detective fiction is that it is told in third-person. I can tell you that even before I picked up the book, I just knew it would be written in first person. All of my favorite detective fiction is written in the first person and I get to see the world through the eyes of the detective and only the detective. I get to be in his or her mind and I only know what the protagonist knows. This is not to say that there is a great distance between the reader and Veronica; however, as a reader I think there would have been more immediacy if Veronica was given to us as a first-person narrator. One of the great aspects of the television show (and the film did this as well) was to have voice-overs from Veronica, cluing us into things that the visual medium couldn’t relate. This element also allowed us to hear Veronica’s voice in a way that we didn’t hear it as she went about solving mysteries. By giving the story to us in third-person, the novel loses that sarcastic, vulnerable, ironic voice and frequently scathing wit that was has always been one of Veronica’s trademarks. If the novel falls short of my expectations, it’s in this aspect, and as I write this I am once again reminded of the importance of the choice writers make between first and third person.
Will I read the next book in this series when it arrives in January 2015? Absolutely. It was a fun read with characters I like. I’m not sure how the series will develop or how long it will continue, but I’m on board and along for the ride.