I first learned about On The Rocks upon reading a review in Publisher's Weekly which called the book a "bland whodunit" that "is defeated by stilted dialogue and a protagonist who rarely amounts to more than a famous name." That's pretty harsh criticism and I'm sorry to say I agree with it to an extent. The mystery lost its interest for me, the writing is clunky at times, and there are "information dumps" regarding details of Cather's life.
However, the strength of the book is in Hallgarth's ability to paint a scene. Her research about Grand Manan, Cather & Lewis, and the time period are obviously top notch. I enjoyed little tidbits she added such as the hot read for tourists of that 1926 summer season being All Quiet on the Western Front or how United States federal agents "had taken to [accidentally] shooting innocent victims" in their zeal to enforce prohibition: "One man out for a Sunday drive with his family in Minnesota took twenty-six slugs from a border patrolman's shotgun." I imagine Hallgarth didn't make that up.
Of course, what kept me reading and what will draw Cather enthusiasts to this book is the curiosity of how Hallgarth represents Cather and her ideas. It was refreshing to see Edith Lewis, who has been woefully neglected (or actively dismissed) in writing about Cather, take center stage. I found myself wanting to know much more about Lewis after reading this novel, but during the reading I always perked up when Cather came on the scene or when Lewis's thoughts turned to reminiscence and/or speculation about Cather and their life together.
First novels are tricky--they tend to either turn people on or turn them off. I am not put off by the quality of the writing in On The Rocks because the craft of writing--dialogue, subtly, pacing, etc--can all be improved upon with diligent practice. I'm looking forward to the second novel of this series, because even in highly successful series the first novel is often a dud or at least hard to get into. I'm thinking of Louise Penny's Chief Inspector Gamache series, which I adore, but the first in that series, Still Life, was hard to get into for many readers, and I'm told by readers whose opinion I value to simply skip the first book in the Dresden Files whenever I'm ready to start that series.
A friend wrote to me that Willa Cather is probably rolling over in her grave over being fictionalized, but, at the risk of sounding corny, I think it's pretty neat.
On The Rocks: A Willa Cather and Edith Lewis Mystery
Arbor Farm Press, January 15, 2013
Visit the publisher's website to read a PDF excerpt.