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BY SAMANTHA WARBURTON

Author: Nora McFarland

2011, Touchstone

Filed Under: Mystery.

Hot, Shot, and Bothered is the second installment of a planned trilogy of mysteries featuring Lilly Hawkins, a camerawoman for a local news station. (Although I haven’t read the first Hawkins story, the plot of this novel stands on its own just fine.) I’m no stranger to mystery series like this: churned out quickly with little pretense of literary quality. Such books can be high on mindless entertainment and great to read by a pool or on a plane. So I picked this up expecting Janet Evanovich, not Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Even by those standards, Hot, Shot, and Bothered fell pretty short.

The story opens with Lilly covering a wildfire in the mountains a few hours east of LA and spotting a coroner’s van on its way to the site of a drowning accident. Fifty pages of unnecessary and convoluted detail later, it’s finally revealed that Lilly knew the victim from her own “shady” past.* Despite more pressing news coverage of the fire and her boss’s direct orders to drop it, Lilly becomes increasingly determined to solve what she is certain is a homicide case. Her suspicions are founded entirely on believing that the victim was so wholesome when Lilly knew her thirteen years prior that she couldn’t possibly have been the “party girl” that she is now alleged to have become. Later, these suspicions are confirmed by a decidedly weak “aha!” type of reveal.

There is also a subplot around Lilly’s career aspirations and the development of her romantic relationship, which is woven nicely into the larger plot, adding some substance without ever taking over the main stage. And, having lived in a town bordering mandatory evacuation zones of a serious wildfire not too far from the setting of the story, I can say with confidence that McFarland’s treatment of the fire is the book’s strongest aspect. It was both well-researched and true to experience. It would have been an easy mistake to use the fire to drive plotlines by manufacturing urgency or manipulating situations, but to her credit, McFarland rarely did.

That strength can carry the book only so far, however. The mystery’s many pieces and strands for the most part connect well enough (minus a few minor red herrings)–but the writing is so riddled with absurdly unnecessary detail that it distracts from the actual story. I thought that perhaps in some of these details were cleverly placed clues that might resurface, but… no. Everywhere there are the marks of immature and hasty writing, left there by a too lenient editor. Remember in third grade, when your teacher told you to use describing words? So does McFarland.

… we passed a dirt lot where rows of blue Porta Potties had been set up. Bright lights ran off generators here, but farther out individual camping tents dotted the dark landscape. There were probably men inside trying to sleep in the few hours they had free. Bell walked quickly, despite her limp, and soon we’d reached the elementary school classrooms. The rooms were laid out in a simple U-shape with an outdoor courtyard. We stayed outside the U and approached the cafeteria from the rear, where the Dumpsters were. A single halogen lamp above the back door lit a group of young Conservation Corps members unloading pallets of food and water from a semitruck. We entered the kitchen and passed men in aprons opening crates of apples.

None of the above is in any way relevant to the plot. And it goes on for another two paragraphs. Eventually, I just stopped paying attention to anything that wasn’t dialogue or direct action.

There’s a half-way decent mystery buried in here somewhere, I think, but good luck unearthing it. Someone needs to tell McFarland that readers don’t need or want to be fed every last supplementary detail. Her style is  mildly tongue-in-cheek and could be genuinely funny if she weren’t constantly spelling everything out. Lilly makes for a fine protagonist with a consistent personality and some room for growth, and as the second in a trilogy, Hot, Shot, and Bothered creates some good openings for the third book without being too blatant. McFarland is worth watching; if she embraces a far more comprehensive editorial process, she has the potential to rise on the Evanovich scale of poolside mysteries.

Similar Reads: Smokin’ Seventeen: A Stephanie Plum Novel (Evanovich), The Reversal (Connelly), The Da Vinci Code (Brown)

[A review copy was provided.]

*Lilly’s “shady” past mostly consisted of some underage drinking and acts of mild teenage rebellion, yet she is ashamed to the point of hiding details from her boyfriend. The reputedly salacious history was so tame that it bordered on seriously sheltered at best and judgmental at worst. Personally, I found this irritating and not particularly believable. Something about a supposedly savvy news reporter in her early thirties who uses “crud” instead of ever swearing really challenges my suspension of disbelief.

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