I was a little bit disappointed by the last one of Jane Haddam’s books I read, the 2009 Living Witness. I’m delighted to report that Wanting Sheila Dead brought back what I so enjoy about Haddam’s novels: penetrating social analysis delivered in a faintly sardonic fashion, along with a satisfying procedural mystery plot. (Minus the soap-box quality that marred Living Witness.)
This time around, affable former FBI profiler Gregor Demarkian gets involved in a reality TV show that’s filming in his hometown of Philadelphia. The host, Sheila Dunham, is the kind of monster we love to hate; relentlessly unpleasant, unpredictable, given to titanic bursts of fury. Naturally she’s the Sheila of the title and she’s apparently the target of an attempt at murder during the tryouts for “America’s Next Superstar.” (Classic Haddam: a “superstar” needs no talent.) To increase the pressure on Gregor, the show is filmed at Engine House where his wife Bennis Hannaford grew up in the kind of familial dysfunction that makes the action in Eugene O’Neill’s plays look like circle time in a cozy pre-school. A subplot involves one of Gregor and Bennis’ neighbors on Cavanaugh Street, a Very Old Lady who appears to have been murdered. Two unrelated murders for the price of one!
My only complaint, and I expect it had to do with editing, is that I was disappointed to be separated from some of the girls who were contestants on the show. Haddam excels at entering into her characters’ points of view and building sympathy with them, so I wanted to know more about why Ivy Demari (tattoos, green-streaked hair, skeptical) or Andra Gayle (daughter of a Bronx drug addict) had auditioned for the TV show. It felt as if Haddam had been working up a sub-plot about them, and it never got fleshed out.