Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Elizabeth Zelvin's "Death Will Get You Sober"

Elizabeth Zelvin is a New York City psychotherapist who directed an alcoholism treatment program on the Bowery for more than six years. Death Will Get You Sober is her first mystery. A related story, “Death Will Clean Your Closet,” has been nominated for an Agatha award for Best Short Story. Another story, “Death Will Tie Your Kangaroo Down,” won an honorable mention in the first annual CrimeSpace Short Story Competition.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to Death Will Get You Sober and reported the following:
At the beginning of Death Will Get You Sober, Bruce Kohler wakes up in detox on the Bowery on Christmas Day and realizes he needs to change his life. How? “Don’t drink, go to meetings, and investigate a murder.” When a detox buddy dies in the next bed, Bruce cares more than he expected to. It’s only a few stops on the subway to Park Avenue, where the victim’s dysfunctional family has more than its share of money and secrets. Two friends Bruce thought he’d lost help him stay sober and find the killer: his best friend Jimmy and Jimmy’s girlfriend Barbara, the world’s most codependent addictions counselor.

Barbara loves to help and mind everybody’s business, so she’s a natural for the role of amateur sleuth. In early drafts of Death Will Get You Sober, she and Bruce were co-protagonists, alternating first-person chapters. Then the first editor at St. Martin’s who read the manuscript loved Bruce’s distinctive voice but thought Barbara would do better as a sidekick. So I rewrote the book.

Page 99 falls in the middle of one of the few chapters in which I used the third person to retain Barbara’s point of view. So if “the quality of the whole” hinges on the voice, which to a great extent it does, page 99 misses it completely. The page is also short on dialogue, another of the book’s strengths. The final paragraph describes in detail the appearance of the victim’s aristocratic sister, whom Barbara goes to interview, one of the few such passages in the book.

On the other hand, Barbara’s codependency is as important as Bruce’s alcoholism to the overall recovery theme of the book. In that sense, the page does contain hints of the essence of the story. And the writer’s voice, which is related but not identical to Bruce’s voice, comes through:

“Her well-sculpted legs were swathed in…near-invisible panty hose, her feet clad in black leather pumps that looked as if they would rather have died than become scuffed. Barbara marveled not only at the outfit, but that she had evidently put it on just to hang out at home. When Barbara hung out at home, she wore sweats and bunny slippers.”
Read an excerpt from Death Will Get You Sober, and learn more about the author and her work at Elizabeth Zelvin's website, her MySpace page, and the group blog, Poe's Deadly Daughters.

--Marshal Zeringue