Five Star Review: Teetotaled

“There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.”
–P.G. Wodehouse

Maia Chance and I are going to be very good friends.

Don’t worry, I haven’t gone stalkery. But when I opened Teetotaled and saw a P.G. Wodehouse quote as the epigraph, I knew I’d just made two new book-buddies, Ms. Chance and her riches-to-rags protagonist Lola Woodby.

Lola’s life philosophy is summed up in P.G.’s quote of a quote: “Everything in life that’s fun, as somebody wisely observed, is either immoral, illegal, or fattening.” The meta-level perfection of this choice effervesces through the whole book. Lola’s a cross between Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum and Bertie Wooster’s cousin Stiffy Byng — insecure but impulsive, bouncing between pragmatism and wishful thinking. Driven alternately by her bravado and her libido, she embodies the saying, “Success is going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

Ms. Chance has liberally buttered every layer of her puff-pastry plot with Wodehousian humor, and each bite is delightful. Lola’s wealthy, disapproving client (an unmistakable Aunt Agatha) sends her off to an exclusive “health farm” to retrieve a valuable MacGuffin. Her fellow inmates include a boozy society matron, a bespectacled and sappy-minded ingenue, a mousy lady writer, a truculent athlete, and a suave foreign millionaire. Add in Lola’s nutrition-nazi brother-in-law, and I half expected Psmith to saunter through a panelled doorway.

But it’s when the hopeful heist turns into a murder inquiry that Teetotaled becomes its own story. Instead of pulling off a simple “discreet retrieval,” Lola must prove herself as an honest-to-God professional gumshoe. The story twists again and again, as Lola and her sidekick/advisor Berta track the suspects from posh Long Island estates to tacky Coney Island crowds, through zany escapades and escalating danger.

Meanwhile, Lola struggles in a romantic entanglement with the enigmatic P.I. Ralph Oliver. Ralph manages to repeatedly save the day without stealing Lola’s thunder, and he’s all the more lovable for it.

For the sake of objectivity, I thought long and hard about possible shortcomings to the book. I managed to come up with two.

Teetotaled is the second book in the “Discreet Retrievals” series, and the author solved the problem of providing context by making Lola’s development as a new detective central to the story arc. This works very well for character development, but as a matter of taste I could have done with a bit less backstory. The book works just fine as a standalone mystery.

The second quibble is related: while the plot hangs together logically, the solution to the murder definitely takes a backseat to Lola’s personal rollercoaster, to the point that I already have trouble remembering the killer’s identity and motive. It’s not so much a whodunnit as can she do it?

You could hardly call either aspect a flaw in the story, any more than an eclair is a “flawed” doughnut. The book put a smile on my face from beginning to end.

So if you’re looking for a Roaring Twenties romp with an insouciant attitude and a rich cast of characters, come meet my new friends Lola and Maia. You’ll like them, I’m sure.

By request, I include a “squick factor” rating on reviews, to give tenderhearted readers a heads-up on graphic or disturbing material. For an example of what I consider level 0, check out my free short story “Mister Mottley and the Key of D.”

In Teetotaled, a couple of distasteful clues are mentioned, but very much at arm’s length. Lola’s feelings for Ralph are robustly carnal, but described without vulgarity. Squick Factor = Nil.

Squick Factor Range:
0 – Nil.
1 – Meh.
2 – Kinda.
3 – Oh yah, you betcha.
4 – GAAAHHH! Nuke it from space!

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