It’s always important for an author not to show their entire hand. Sometimes, that applies to the things they choose not to put into a story as much as the things that they do. In the case of Play the Fool, author Lina Chern’s restraint factors into the enjoyment of this debut novel almost as much as the clues she drops along the way.
Katie True works at a rundown giftshop in a rundown mall, and the only bright spots in her day is when she can hang out with fellow retail-job deadender Marley and doing the occasional tarot card reading for the more gullible giftshop customers. But when Katie steals a look at the phone of one customer, Nico, in an effort to make his tarot reading ring true, she sees a picture of Marley with a gaping bullet wound in her head. Katie recognizes the background of the photo as being by the mall dumpster, so when her shift is up, she goes to the site, intending to call police as soon as she makes sure the photo wasn’t some sick prank. Marley isn’t there, and there isn’t even blood or any other sign of a body being moved, but Katie does see Marley’s favorite necklace and knows, like the Leaves of Lorien, not idly does the cheap Ace of Spades pendant fall.
Katie impulsively to do a little more sleuthing, which causes her to catch Nico in the act of rummaging through Marley’s apartment. When both Nico and Katie are busted, Katie manages to make hunky detective Jamie believe she isn’t a burglar, as well as at least entertaining the idea that something bad happened to Marley. He agrees to help, but unofficially, and that’s too slow for Katie. She’s never had much luck in life, but even as the odds grow steeper, Katie persists, helped by Jamie and her little brother, Owen. But as she continues to dig into the mystery unfolding around her, the same danger Marley found now begins to creep toward Katie, instead.
I was pleasantly surprised at the role tarot plays in Play the Fool. I expected a gimmick, something like clues or messages hidden in cards. But Chern shows more restraint than that. Rather, Katie has a legitimate backstory with the cards, which makes thinking of people and things in terms of tarot cards second nature. (Familiarity with tarot will likely enrich the story, but I can attest it is fully enjoyable and accessible knowing absolutely babkas about them.) Chern also wisely shows a little subtlety in Katie’s various family relationships, which, aside from Owen, are all dysfunctional in their own ways. There is no blowup behind that dysfunction, just expectations not meeting up with reality. Mundane stuff that doesn’t cease to be painful or frustrating by how boring it is.
Making those things part of Katie’s character rather than forcing them into more prominence into the plot means Chern can spend more time on the mystery. “A murder without a body is like a puzzle without a box,” Jamie says, but this case is one where half the pieces are missing, too. No body, but also no motive, conflicting stories about her last day, and the progressive realization that Marley might not have been who she said she was—all of it complicates things for our detectives. It would be easy to say Katie’s reckless and impulsive stabs at sleuthing on her own don’t help, but the information she stumbles into (sometimes a bit conveniently) does help inch the case along. She makes many very bad decisions, but her heart is in the right place, and that same sense of caring means she has genuine relationships with others. It’s as much a party of Katie as her self-identity of being a walking disaster, and you can’t help but root for her a little.
In a more realistic novel, Katie would have gotten arrested and/or killed for her boneheaded moves. In a more gratuitous one, Katie would have singlehandedly solved the case through the cards and/or via an epiphany had in the throes of passionate sex with Jamie. Chern gives us neither, and the clever story she hands us instead feels genuine and as sweet as anything can be with murder and possibly organized crime. Nothing foolish about that.
From a strictly whodunnit standpoint, there are some big reveals here, but many of the twists were not earthshattering. I felt I could anticipate the importance of most things, though there were some nice red herrings thrown my way. I don’t think this is a bad thing, though. Internet fandom has conditioned us to equate surprise with good writing when the inverse is often true. Foreshadowing means the author lays the groundwork for something before it happens. Genre comes with its own expectations, including, in the case of mystery, red herrings and, often, chases or peril near the end. Chern knows the tropes, and when to follow and subvert them. Play the Fool will not revolutionize the genre, but it is a solid mystery and a whole lot of fun.