Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Murderous press trip full of tourism twists and turns

No, this is not a review of a recent press trip that turned out badly (I can hear some travel industry people going, “Whew!”). 

Mind you, I could write about those, as I have been on a few - but maybe after I retire...

Rather, this is about a book titled Murder Packs a Suitcase – the first book in a mystery series featuring a travel writer as a protagonist.

Author Cynthia Baxter stepped into a new genre with this book, after publishing several mystery novels about veterinarian-turned-sleuth Jessica Popper, a.k.a., the “Reigning Cats and Dogs” series.

Recently widowed Mallory Marlowe is looking to get back into living her life following the death of her husband, and while applying for a part-time job as a typesetter at the New York-based Good Life magazine, she ends up getting a gig as their regular travel writer, responsible for taking one all-expenses paid trip a month to produce a 2,000-word piece for the high-end glossy – and getting paid well, to boot. (You know this really is fiction - how many gigs like that really exist, and how many of us wouldn’t want something like that to fall in our lap? Drool-drool!)

Her first assignment takes her to Orlando, Florida where she’s part of a press trip consisting of several travel writers, each covering a different beat or publication genre. 

Many of the travel writer stereotypes are covered: Mallory, of course, covers the more expensive beat. There is also the budget travel magazine writer, the seniors’ travel writer, and the online website travel writer. 

Each writer has his or her own characteristics: the budget writer is always looking to cut corners, get everything as cheap as possible; the senior just “wants to have fun;” and the online writer is actually one of those types that sometimes appear on real press trips – he’s obnoxious, condescending, rude – and (unlike any press trips I’ve been on) he ends up getting killed four chapters into the book.

That last point is an important one for me: my rule is, there better be a murder in the first four chapters of any mystery, or it will most likely be a dud!

In this story, there is also a perky tourism board rep and a harried hotel manager.

Of course, Mallory ends up becoming one of the chief murder suspects, so in addition to trying to get to all the tourist attractions so she can meet her assignment requirements, she’s trying to solve the case.

There are the usual suspects (everybody!) and the twists, turns and red herrings that make the “cozy” mystery sub-genre so enjoyable.

The author does a pretty good job of capturing what it’s like to be on a press trip. However, one thing that struck me as a bit odd is the fact even though all these writers are on the same “trip” with the same flight schedules, hotel, etc., they all have completely individual itineraries that they plan themselves, with absolutely no input from the tourism board, other than to supply some free passes to local attractions. The tourism board is credited with organizing it, however. (Not much to organize, really – the writers even book their own flights.)

I’ve been on individual press trips as well as group trips, and while I have no doubt there may be some group trips organized where every writer is completely on their own 100 per cent of the time, it did seem a bit odd, since it’s outside my realm of experience. Usually with a group press trip, there are some group activities, but other than an opening and closing dinner, there are none organized on this one. Certainly, it did provide a different perspective.

One of the unique aspects of this book I liked is the actual “travel story” at the end. Apart from the actual narrative, the author has written a 2,000-word magazine piece, complete with contact info and website links to all the places the fictional writer Mallory visits in the novel. Yes, they are all real destinations, and that lends a nice “realistic” feel to the fiction. It reminded me of the recipes included at the back of so many of the “gourmet/cooking-sleuth” mysteries that are so popular these days.

I really enjoyed it, although admittedly, I am a big mystery buff; by combining two of my favourite topics - murder-mystery fiction, with travel non-fiction - there is a better than average chance I’ll like the end result (provided it’s written well.) In a future post, look for a review of the second book in this series, Too Rich and Too Dead, a story which sees Mallory head to a Colorado ski resort.

Murder Packs a Suitcase, paperback, 304 pp. ISBN: 978-0-553-59036-4 (0-553-59036-7). Cost: $8.99 (in Canada)

Visiting Florida? This video might help with the planning.