Sunday, December 15, 2013

Acting Lessons, by Amanda Stern

"Acting Lessons," by Amanda Stern, in The Marijuana Chronicles, edited by Jonathan
Santlofer, Akashic Press, 2013.

So: what's a mystery story? 

People who don't read them think they know.  A mystery is a story in which someone gets murdered and a detective looks for clues, talks to suspects, and reveals the killers.  Easy-peasy.

People who actually read mysteries know that that was a pretty good description of the field in 1922.  Since then it got a little more complicated.

Otto Penzler describes a mystery (and I am paraphrasing)  as a astory in which crime or the threat of crime, is a major element.  And that indeed covers P.I. stories, suspense, inverted detective stories, and other tales that don't fit the first description.

Unfortunately, it also covers The Scarlet Letter, Hamlet, Oedipus Rex, and The Brothers Karamazov,  none of which most people would consider mysteries.  So there is something missing, maybe an attitude thing, that separates crime stories.

All of which is my way of explaining that this week's story barely qualifies for my field.  After all, this book doesn't promise stories about crime; just stories about pot.  I suppose you could argue that if drugs are illegal then all stories about drugs are crime stories, but then we get into that attitude problem again.

So why am I reviewing this story?  Because it is so good, that's why.  Here's the opening.

The initial quantum fluctuation that burst forwrd to create this universe implanted particles prgrammed, in years nine to fourteen of a human girl's life, to flood the neural regions and saturate her suggestible self with one single, rabid desire: to become an actress.

Okay, I loved that.

The narrator  describes her experiences at age fourteen taking lessons from Ian and Caroline a perfect Californai-style couple in New York who specialize in drama lessons for teenagers.  They want to know what deep-secret agonies their students are concealing, so that they may build their acting skills out of them.  And our heroine finds herself lacking: "I was furious that my parents didn't pull out my hair or toss me from windows."

Of course, she has a deepset problem and that is the insecure need to please Ian and Caroline.  Especially Ian.  And Ian figures she can reveal her deep secrets if she only tries some pot.  Or how about cocaine?

So if there is a crime here it is an adult man giving drugs to a fourteen year old girl.  And certainly there is the not-so-hidden reason he wants to get close to her.  If this was a standard crime story something nastier would happen.  But I am happy with the way it turns out.

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