Book review: Con Job

The fact that I have to start nearly every blog post here with “Hey guys—I’m not dead!” seems especially appropriate today since I want to share a review of Laura VanArendonk Baugh (say that five times fast!)’s murder mystery novel Con Job, in which would-be detective Jacob and his friends have only three days to find a murderer before the fan convention they’re attending ends and all the con-goers — and the murderer — head home.

That’s right, this is a murder mystery at a con. *Pause for geek-out.*

Cosplayers who read my blog (are there any?) might know Laura as one-third of cosplay group “And Sewing Is Half the Battle!” She’s got more years of cosplay experience than I have experience being alive (okay, not quite…), and not only cosplays but also gives panels, participates in and judges masqs, and staffs cons. Suffice to say she has the bases covered, and she brings all of her con knowledge and general nerdery to this book.

Here’s the blurb from the back:

Jacob just wanted to have a good time with his friend Samantha and fellow geeks at the fan convention. But when dead bodies start turning up, Jacob has to start a little early on his hoped-for detective career. After all, the police are out of their depth in a world where nearly everyone wears a costume or uses an alias. But Jacob has a secret of his own, and it looks like someone is bent on revealing him to the entire con. If Jacob’s history comes out, his police career will end before it begins, even if he can find the killer. And if he can’t, more fans will die.

*Dramatic gasp* DUN DUN DUUUUNNN! (No, I haven’t had any coffee today; why do you ask?)

Anywhoo… This book is awesome. And fun. Except for the murders. *cough* Laura has a fast-paced writing style that works really well for this type of story. On the one hand, it lends a sense of urgency to the mystery itself — I read the first 3/4ths of the book in one sitting and stayed up waaaay past my usual bed time doing so. I would probably have kept going but the idea of 6:45am finally drove me to bed. On the other hand, it also conveys the bustling activity of a con, from cosplay to voice acting contests to tabletop tournaments. Her characters get stopped in the hallway for photos and have to visit Con Ops to have their prop weapons approved and tagged. Discussions about Worbla (see my previous post) break out spontaneously. My Little Ponies accidentally photobomb a Star Trek photoshoot. And so on.

Jacob, on the other hand, ends up helping staff the con, so we get to see both the attendee and the staff perspective. I’ve staffed one con (AnimeWorld Chicago 2012) and would definitely do it again, but lemme tell you, it’s madness even without murder, and Laura knows it.

A few highlights:

Geeky references. This book is full of ’em, and I’m ashamed to say I probably missed quite a few even so. First there are references to “real” things and fandoms, like Marvel, LOTR, Doctor Who, Naruto, and so on. Voice-actor Rob Paulsen also gets a shoutout. On the other hand there are thinly-veiled nods to real things. A girl cosplays a character from the artist-group CLUTCH, for example, and I’m pretty sure the photographer character is based on Elemental Photography. And like I said, there are probably a bunch I missed (Mr. Doobles, anyone?).

Jacob’s secret. I was initially a little doubtful that this secret, if revealed, would actually prevent Jacob from pursuing his detective career, but by the end I was pretty much sold — Laura touches on it enough to make you realize the impact it’s had on Jacob’s life and could still have on his future without letting it bog the story, or the character, down. And I gotta say, the last scene was amazing, and completely satisfying.

Actual fan-community issues. Jacob and co deal with everything from verbal abuse at the hands of non-con-goers, to the serious difficulties and frustrations presented by the way anime is licensed for distribution in the US (as one character puts it, “people are mad because they can’t pay for a product instead of stealing it”), to the outrageously-low prices charged by convention photographers, to ridiculous room-sharing (wanna spend less at the con? Room with 11 other people!), to the evils of body paint (guess what happens when you paint yourself gray and then sit on hotel furniture? Yup.). The last is probably my favorite, and is a (mostly) gentle nudge at the Homestuck fandom. I’m thinking copies of Con Job should come with complementary bottles of makeup sealer. The book doesn’t backhand you with any of these issues, but they’re definitely there, the bad with the good.

 

Is this a book for people who don’t attend cons? Being a congoer myself, I can’t really say, and I haven’t been able to get my mom to read the book yet. 😛 Several reporters and the police detective in charge of the investigation are all “outsiders” as it were, and provide plenty of opportunities for the con staff and attendees to explain what’s going on. Additionally, Jacob isn’t a cosplayer, so even when his friend Sam waxes enthusiastic about hand-dyed silk, the non-cosplaying reader has someone to sympathize with. If you don’t attend cons you’ll definitely have a different experience reading this book than I did, but I don’t think you’ll be downright confused.

One final note: the jacket art was done by my friend Karmada, which just makes this book that much more awesome. Available at Amazon!

P.s. If you do get a copy, be sure to leave Laura a review when you’ve finished reading. It’s one of the best things you can do for a self-publishing author.

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