A long time ago, we used to be friends. But. I haven’t talked to you lately at all. These are the lyrics to the theme song of Veronica Mars, the teen detective. And earlier this year, she made a spectacular return. Not only as a movie, but also in book form. Let’s have a look at Veronica Mars: The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line.
First of all, I need to say a few things: Veronica Mars is awesome. She has always been awesome and will always be awesome. Why? Because at the time her TV show aired, all the way back in 2004, she was the perfect detective. She was snarky, modern, fun and extremely clever. Add to that fearless and occasionally stupidly reckless and you had a very likable character in Veronica Mars, private investigator slash high school student from Neptune, California.
The Post-9/11 Detective
If you looked at the times back then – way to sound like an old man, Dom – it was a time of snark. The world had just gotten over the public shock of 9/11 and we had come to terms with nothing being the same ever again. We were there when history was written and we were powerless. So we escaped into cynicism and a weird belief in justice. Not police justice but some sort of poetic justice that would solve all of our problems and the bad guys would get what they have coming.
So cynicism was our thing. Everything became at least somewhat ironic and we preferred to not think of the wars, the terrorists, the suffering and the imminent danger that loomed in our world. We wanted to believe that somewhere, justice was being done, even if only on the small screen.
The show’s format was simple. There was an overarching plot every season. In the first one, she tried to solve the murder of her rich friend Lilly. And then there was a case of the week that sometimes held clues to the big mystery but sometimes didn’t.
What made Veronica Mars so great was not just the fact that she wasn’t some big CSI person – Crime Scene Investigators were all the rage around then – but sort of an everyday person. Played by a then-unknown Kirsten Bell, Veronica Mars narrated her own episodes with wit and snark, getting serious when necessary and surprisingly wise at times. Hers were small wisdoms. They fit the middle of the naughties, the decade between 2000 and 2010 that still don’t have a proper name.
Three seasons later, the show was cancelled, despite all efforts by fans to resurrect the show. These fans didn’t stop wanting more.
Ten years after Veronica Mars first debuted on the small screen, series writer Rob Thomas and star Kristen Bell took to Kickstarter. They asked fans for 2 Million Dollars to make a new movie. They got 5 Million. So fans got more than they asked for. A movie and a book: Veronica Mars: The Thouand-Dollar Tan Line, written by Jennifer Graham. Awesome!
Who Needs the First Person?
The most jarring thing about the book becomes apparent right away. Remember how I mentioned that Veronica Mars used to narrate her own cases? She doesn’t here. The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line is entirely in third person. While there’s nothing wrong with that particular kind of narrative, I expected this to be a given. I mean, look at the source material. Or the movie. Or anything else of Veronica’s. The show was her voice all the way through. So now we don’t have that anymore. This despite the fact that a first-person narrative has become something quite usual.
This feeling of the missing narrative does not go away throughout the entire book. You don’t get used to it, there’s nothing that makes this narrative familiar or any sort of Mars-esque.
While it’s obvious throughout the book that there are very probably more books in planning, this book is a standalone. If this was an episode of the TV show, then we’d have it be the typical case of the week with no clues to the larger mystery. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s pretty good. The detective story is well-crafted and the case adds up in the end, even if it does the one thing I hate the most about detective stories: In the end, there’s no way the readers could have figured this out on their own.
Viewers could only sometimes figure out the cases on their own and the larger mystery of the season was typically so full of twists and turns that there was no chance of solving it, it would have been cool to make the book one to figure out.
Making readers of detective novels able to figure out the killer out themselves is an art in and of itself. An author needs to place the hints carefully and the reader can’t be able to figure it out until about two pages before the detective does. That’s the best of detective stories.
Veronica All Grown Up
Despite all this, The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line is a good read. It’s a short and fun read that doesn’t fail to entertain. Because it does get one thing right: the characters.
Veronica Mars wasn’t just a one-girl show. She had a very interesting and likable supporting cast, all as believable and human as Veronica. They were very much a gang of misfits and underdogs. There is Veronica’s father, Keith Mars, former sheriff of Neptune. Her classmate Wallace was bullied throughout high school. Her friend Mac is a female hacker and socially incompetent by choice. Veronica’s boyfriend is rich but alienated due to his wealth and the massive baggage his family name carries. He’s looking for redemption but has no idea how to go about getting it. Her ally Weevil, a former biker gang leader, is trying to make his life as a family man.
This flawed bunch of people are our heroes. They’re people we care about and in The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line, much like in the new movie, we see them again. All grown up. Veronica has a career, Keith is trying to fall in love again, Mac is unhappy at her job, Wallace is a high school sports teacher but is still there for his gang. And Logan, the boyfriend, has joined the military, fighting for freedom and democracy overseas.
The characters have grown in the years we’ve not had them around and I think it was the best decision Rob Thomas and his crew could have made to have time pass in Veronica’s world, too. Because we still recognize our favourite characters, but we know that they’re in a different world now. The snark is somewhat gone, toned down because we don’t live in that world anymore. Other things define our existence currently. The ever-constant economic crisis that appears to be our lives these days. Will we still have a retirement fund? What about our jobs? Wait… what jobs? That sort of thing. So this world-weariness of yore is – while still being somewhat applicable – kind of over.
We work our jobs and we try to balance them with our as-fulfilling-as-possible hobbies. So does Veronica. Hers is the question if she wants to go for a high-paying lawyer-job in the big city or if she wants to follow her passion, being a private investigator in Neptune. Because being a detective doesn’t pay. Mac has a similar problem. Hers is that she can get a lot of money without any impact on the world at a big programming firm or she can help Veronica. Wallace is kind of happy, but knows that his job is as good as it will get.
The Actual Plot
In light of all the character moments, the plot sometimes takes a bit of a back seat to the interpersonal drama and the necessary exposition to explain how a character from back in 2004 ended up in the place they find themselves in nowadays.
But the plot is this. A number of girls disappear during spring break in Neptune. They all went to the same place before they disappeared. Veronica investigates her most dangerous case to date. She has to face organized crime, gun violence, old friends and new enemies. And her estranged mother.
So that’s it. There’s a lot more plot, but I don’t want to give away too much, because there are many clues, twists and turns in the book. Let me just say that despite the seeming imbalance of plot vs. character development in this review, it’s nicely balanced in the book.
If you like a good detective story, then this is for you. It might be worth checking out the new movie before you read this, if only to get you into the mood of Veronica Mars being back.
One last thing. The pricing is completely out of whack on this book. A paperback will cost you $10.07 as of June 2014. The digital copy will come to cost you $10.18. And for that money, I’d just rather have a real, paper book. I like the Kindle a lot, but I like books more. And for the record, I also don’t see why books and Kindles can’t co-exist, despite the ongoing dispute between Amazon and the printing world.
So here’s a trailer. Because you definitely want to watch the movie.