“’I thought you wanted information, Lamb. I thought you wanted to find these girls.’
He looked at the picture again, a conflicted expression flitting across his face. ‘Do you have any proof that this guy had any part in either disappearance?’
‘No, but he was seen with both girls just before they went missing. That’s enough to get him in for questioning.’
‘Is it? Suddenly you’re some kind of legal scholar?’
‘Uh, yeah.’ She smirked. ‘Suddenly I kind of am.’”
– Veronica Mars: The Thousand Dollar Tan Line, Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham
Veronica Mars might have spent the past ten years trying to escape her hometown of Neptune, California, but the irresistible pull of its seedy locals, its salacious scandals, and its deep, dark mysteries has drawn her back in. Veronica Mars began as a short-lived but beloved TV series, where the a plucky teenaged detective helped her single dad in the private eye biz, attempting to solve her best friend’s murder while working through her own deliciously melodramatic problems. Cancelled after three seasons, Veronica found new life as a feature film in 2014, which was funded by eager fans in the most lucrative Kickstarter campaign ever. But if you’re reading this, you probably already know all that.
Picking up shortly after the events of Veronica Mars the movie, The Thousand Dollar Tan Line kicks off a new book series and a new set of mysteries for Veronica to solve. Best of all, the first audiobook is narrated by Veronica herself, actress Kristen Bell. It’s spring break in Neptune, which means booze, bikinis, and 24-hour parties. When the disappearance of college freshman Hayley DeWalt is quickly followed by the disappearance of 16-year-old Aurora Scott, the corrupt and inept Sheriff Dan Lamb dismisses the case as out-of-town party girls who will eventually turn up. The Chamber of Commerce steps in to hire Mars Investigations, and the mystery takes Veronica on a twisty path and a confrontation from her past.
Kristen Bell is a superb narrator. The show and movie employed Bell’s voiceovers to let audiences peek into Veronica’s point of view, and there’s a wonderful familiarity in hearing her tell this story. She employs her great emotional range without overacting, absolutely nailing it. As a huge bonus, she’s wonderful with voices. Her Keith Mars and Wallace Fennel are surprisingly good, her Cindy “Mac” MacKenzie is perfect, and she infuses Sheriff Lamb with the perfect amount of vitriol. The absolute best, though, is how she gives voice to Trish Turley, a Nancy Grace-type television “news” personality. The bracing, overbearing brunt of Turley’s Texan drawl is aimed at Lamb’s ineptitude and at the crumbling moral fabric of society in general, and Bell’s delivery is just perfect. I would love to hear her narrate other, non-Veronica books in future. She’s a natural.
The mystery is pretty solid, with shifty friends, bad boyfriends, and questionable family lives abounding. Both girls were seen at the same raucous party, and drug lords could be involved. Were they kidnapped? Murdered? Why? The red herrings are well done, and it’s fun to see Veronica back at it, sneaking into mansions, sifting through diaries. Veronica is strong and flawed, driven by the weight of responsibility she feels, the addictive draw of mystery, and her inability to let anything go without knowing all the answers. It’s a little sad to see Veronica, Mac, and Wallace living basically the same lives they were in high school, but that is part of the dilemma of bring back a fan-loved premise years later. How do you find the balance between giving fans the characters and settings they know but also giving your characters room to grow and change?
The major mid-story reveal, a blast from Veronica’s past, is there for shock value but feels forced. The connection Veronica has to the missing Aurora Scott is a huge coincidence and not a necessary one for the plot. Please highlight the rest of this paragraph if you want to read it, as it contains a major spoiler: having Veronica’s mother reappear in Veronica’s life ten years after they parted ways is certainly compelling. The alcoholic and rather flaky Lianne broke Veronica and Keith’s hearts and squandered Veronica’s college savings on rehab that she never finished. This is a fraught situation. But bringing her into the plot as the stepmother of one of the missing girls is just dumb. Of all the girls in California to disappear, the one from Arizona who just happens to live with the estranged mother of the private eye who was then hired to find her stretches credulity. That Aurora chose to go to Neptune at all when she knows that’s where Veronica is from makes little sense, especially as Veronica didn’t factor into her plans at all. This felt like a cheap ploy to ram Lianne into the story, and the final solution to the girls’ disappearance in no way hinges on Lianne as a plot point. This didn’t need to be here at all.
What’s interesting about reading a Veronica mystery rather than watching it is the access we get both into Veronica’s mind (the story is told in limited third person) and into series creator Rob Thomas’s vision. Motivations, lasting hurts, and reasons for reactions are laid bare in a way that you don’t always get in a visual medium, and the book lets you delve deeper into Veronica’s character than ever before.
So much of the book depends on a familiarity with and affinity for the show, but then, why shouldn’t it? These are characters with layered, at times convoluted back stories, and a setting that is just as complex. The Thousand Dollar Tan Line isn’t going to win newcomers to the franchise, but really, newcomers should go start with season one. You’re missing all the good stuff if you pick up the book first. In the meantime, this story will satisfy fans who want to see their favourite characters embroiled in a juicy mystery, and sets up the series of tie-in novels well. This is definitely one to enjoy as an audiobook. The story is fine, but Kristen Bell elevates it into a perfect summer read. I look forward to book two, Mr. Kiss & Tell, coming October 28th 2014.
Three and a half out of five blue pencils
Veronica Mars: The Thousand Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham, published in Canada by Vintage, © 2014. Audiobook published by Random House Aido, narrated by Kristen Bell, © 2014.
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