Friday, March 14, 2014

Fandom Friday: Neptune Noir

Image from Pop Culture Nexus

Title: Neptune Noir: Unauthorized Investigations into Veronica Mars
Editors: Rob Thomas & Leah Wilson
Publisher: Smart Pop
Publication Year: 2007
Read: March 2014
Where It Came From: Digital review copy from publisher via NetGalley*
Genre: Academic-ish-pop-culture-essay-collection
Rating: 2.5 Marshmallows

I was a bit of a latter-day convert to the cult of Veronica Mars. I don’t know why it took me so long to check out this brilliant TV show, especially since I’ve been a fan of kid/teen detectives since I learned how to read. Encyclopedia Brown, Cam Jansen, Nancy Drew…I loved them all. So I’m not really sure how I managed to elude watching Ms. Mars for so many years, especially considering all the rave reviews it’s gotten from some of my most trustworthy sources. However it happened, the Mars-lessness of my existence came to a close some time at the end of 2013, when a friend sat me down and made me watch the first episode. I was immediately hooked, and finished all three seasons in a series of minorly shameful binges. When there was no more to watch, I felt the anguish of the show’s cancellation 7 years after the fact—why did they give something this fantastic the chop?? Luckily for me, I didn’t have long to tear my hair out over it, because today the much-publicized, crowd-funded Veronica Mars movie is premiering at theaters nationwide. It’s hard to believe that the show first hit televisions 10 years ago (!) and that the love of the fans has brought it back with a movie sequel so many years after it was cancelled. Pretty amazing really, and I’m looking forward to seeing it.

But what is Veronica Mars about? you may be wondering. I’ll do my best to summarize: Veronica Mars is a teenage girl living in the fictional San Diego suburb of Neptune, California. It’s a town without a middle class, she claims—there are the rich, privileged kids at school, and then there are the kids whose parents work in the rich people’s mansions. It might sound a little Gossip Girl/90210 at this point, but here’s where things get interesting—the year before the present time in the show, Veronica was one of the cool kids, until her best friend was murdered. Her father, the town sheriff, accused someone from one of the richest families in Neptune of the crime, and was pushed out of office. The crime remains unsolved, and since Veronica stood by her father throughout the ordeal, her rich kid friends kicked her out of the clique. Add to that Veronica’s rape while drugged at a party after becoming a social pariah and her mother skipping town and abandoning the family, and you’ve got the makings of one disillusioned teen who helps her now-P.I. father with his investigations.

This all sounds dark, and it admittedly is, but our protagonist is a whip smart survivor who is dogged in her pursuit of the answers in the overarching mysteries of who raped her and who killed Lilly Kane. As she makes progress on those fronts, we’ve also got the mysteries-of-the-week that other students hire her to solve, along with rapid-fire, quippy dialogue and probably the best father-daughter relationship I’ve ever seen portrayed on TV. The genre has been described as neo-noir, and it’s riveting to see these mysteries unfold in southern California. It’s dark, but not hopeless, with a hefty injection of humor and wit. I’ve heard people go on the defensive, saying, “Oh, she’s nothing like Nancy Drew!” and while it’s true that Veronica is very different from that other prominent teen girl detective, I feel like they’re two sides of the same coin. If, say, Nancy’s father Carson Drew were falsely disbarred for his handling of a hot button River Heights case (the murder of Bess, perhaps) and Ned, George, and the rest of the crew gave her the cold shoulder, it’s not hard to imagine her becoming a little more like our girl Veronica.

Here’s the part where I actually get around to reviewing a book. Because I was so excited for the impending release of the Veronica Mars movie, when I saw Neptune Noir on NetGalley I immediately snatched it up. Maybe you’ve seen examples of this genre before in your trawlings around Amazon, and already know about the existence of books dedicated to essays analyzing aspects of pop cultural institutions, usually ones with a solid (read: rabid) fanbase—your Game of Throneses, Twilights, Harry Potters, and the like. This is one of those books.

Not for dilettantes or casual fans, it’s a collection of critical essays and analyses (all written by Mars enthusiasts) that range from the academic in flavor (or that at least aspire to such) to ones that happily have the balance of fun and insight that you might expect in the pop culture coverage on your favorite blog or website. Most seem to have been written in the interim between the 2nd and 3rd seasons of the show, so they’re spoiler-rife for seasons 1 and 2, and the third is obviously not addressed. Despite the fact that it’s “completely unauthorized,” this collection has the added cachet of being edited by the creator of the show, Rob Thomas. His introduction chapter about screenwriting and how Veronica Mars came to be is one of the most enlightening and fun to read in the whole book, and his mini-intros preceding each of the essays are easily the most consistently good part of the collection. They feel kind of a like Pop Up Video/peek behind the curtain at the show. As for the essays themselves, some are funny, some are enlightening, and some raise interesting points, but for me most of them landed in the space between my ears with a resounding meh.

There are a few worth the thinking geek’s time, though. There is a cool essay about the role cars play in the show and how the vehicles characters drive are a reflection of their personality and situation. There’s another one that very amusingly discusses the balance that the show strikes between noir and camp. Yet another addresses Veronica’s disillusionment and world-weariness through the lens of a humorous account of the author’s own experiences of teen disillusionment. While these examples succeeded in being both insightful and entertaining, this was unfortunately not the case for many of the rest. I found the majority of the essays to have an at best tenuous grip on academia, that many had theories that were on occasion interesting to momentarily entertain but of which I remained unconvinced, and some were downright boring. This collection is only for the hardcore VM fan, and even then, of the 18 essays included, I didn’t enjoy enough of them to be able to give the collection my full endorsement even for that subset of the population. Mostly, it just served to whet my appetite for the real thing when the movie comes out.

The tl;dr, long story short version: The TV show is amazing and you should probably watch it if you haven’t, but only a few of the essays in this collection live up to the awesomeness of their inspiration. I will be seeing the movie tonight and looking forward to trying out the new series of Veronica Mars mystery novels that will debut later this month, but this essay collection will not be joining my bookshelf.

*As ever, much as we are grateful for the copy, our review is uninfluenced by its source.

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