Lavender: Action is Character

This was going to be a comment in answer to the comments on yesterday’s post, but it got long, so . . .

I have to go back through and reply to everybody (I’m just checking dashboard this AM), but there are two things I’m finding interesting about people requesting that Lavender be spared because they like her:

One is the reinforcement for the idea that action is character. Lavender does everything right, that’s why Liz likes her, and her actions are what everybody here is citing.

But the other is the complete failure of another method of characterization, what other characters say about the character.

Generally speaking if somebody we like doesn’t like a character, we don’t like that character or at least hold her in suspicion. But except for one person yesterday, nobody is giving any credence to the fact that Molly says emphatically that Liz is not like Lavender and in the diner scene compares her to Ann Coulter (apologies if you like Ann Coulter) obviously someone she finds lacking. And then there’s the weight of numbers: Patsy Porter is nuts, but Kitty isn’t, and she does not like Lavender; Cash’s brothers don’t like Lavender although they wisely stay out of it;l Lavender’s sister, Skye, drops out of her wedding; and I forget what Liz’s mother says, but she’s not a fan although she’s mild about it.

Unless all of those people are nuts (and some are), there’s something wrong with Lavender. And I think there are subtle examples of this on the page. For instance, Lavender’s the kind of person who would ask her groom’s ex-girlfriend to be her maid of honor the day before her wedding so that she can show the town that she’s won and her groom doesn’t love Liz any more. She’s the kind of person who knows that Peri is in danger (she took the keys from Margot) and uses that as a bargaining chip instead of getting Margot help. She’s the kind of person who will say, “All these people hate me,” without acknowledging why; that is, she’s a smart woman, she knows why each of those people dislike her, but she plays it as . . . actually, she doesn’t play it. She just says, “They hate me, you can see it,” and uses it on Liz, who also feels everybody dislikes her. She really plays Liz all the way through the first act.

Clearly I have to get more clues on the page before Lavender hits her Big Moment and kicks all that seething resentment into overdrive so that at least six people have motive to murder her, but it’s educational knowing that Action is Character is going to trump everything else (which makes sense, it’s more powerful that everything else).

Lavender4a copy 2

Here’s the placeholder pic for Lavender. A placeholder, for those of you new to my fractured process, is a picture that doesn’t look like the character–it’s not an illustration–but it captures for me the personality of the character. It’s why I usually have more than one person as a placeholder in the collages; it’s layering different aspects of character to make a more complex whole.

Liz:Lavender

But one of the reasons I chose these two is that there’s a vague resemblance between Liz and Lavender, not enough that people would remark on it, but enough that Cash’s taste in women becomes clear and another reason why Lavender would want Liz up there with her; they look alike, but Lavender is the classic beauty. And then, of course, that becomes a plot point, and Lavender becomes a foil for Liz for the rest of the book: Liz is like her in many ways, very different in others, and having the murder victim as a foil is helpful in plotting the rest of the book (assuming I ever write it). (And I have to admit, I like it that the first picture leans toward warm tones and the second picture leans toward cool.)

All of which is to say, yesterday’s comments were hugely helpful. I clearly need to do some rewriting because I failed utterly to make most readers uneasy about Lavender, so once again, thank you very much, Argh Beta Readers.

49 thoughts on “Lavender: Action is Character

  1. I follow what you’re saying. The funny thing for me is I didn’t like Lavender because of the Peri thing and I thought it was indicative of some strong character flaws. Also, she doesn’t like the dog. It won’t bother me when she’s killed.

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    1. I was left uneasy about Lavender when she made the offer to help Margot if, and only if, Liz accepted her offer. The hints are there, they just maybe need to be a little stronger, although I don’t envy you the challenge of doing that without losing Liz’s reasons to sympathise.

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  2. I just left my thoughts about the WIP on the other post, but I think why I liked Lavender (but not enough to ask that she be spared) was that Liz also liked her and I trust Liz’s POV the most out of everyone in the story. The rest of the town seems pretty crazy. I commented in the other post that I didn’t understand why everyone wanted her wedding to be called off. I figured I missed something.

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    1. You know, that’s interesting.

      Liz has a character arc, and it includes changing her mind about assumptions she’s made about her home town. So she’s actually an unreliable narrator, even though she’s always truthful. She calls ’em as she sees ’em, but she doesn’t see as well as she thinks.

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  3. Good points here. I didn’t feel like I knew Lavender well enough to really judge, other than getting why Liz likes her upon a short acquaintance. But I see the clues you’re leaving. However, there’s a lot of people in that synopsis that you’re juggling the reactions of, and maybe they just didn’t seem as significant in the hordes of loud people Liz is running into? At least some of whom are well, crazy?

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  4. huh. I am enlightened about your thinking and planning.

    I think of gossip as gossip, and do not know how much credence to give anyone except Liz. She gets instant credit because she is your narrator and she comes pre-qualified. Molly gets some of that because Liz tells me so, but everyone who is not Liz, and possibly Vince, another outsider, is in the unreliable narrator bin until proven otherwise.

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  5. Oh, I was uneasy. Because of her actions, not necessarily what people say — it’s such a complicated town. So go ahead and get Lavender murdered. It will get the book further along.

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  6. Oh, I definitely need to rewrite this and add more unease. You’ve all made such good points, but even if you hadn’t, the fact that you liked her enough to worry about her was all I need to know I had to rewrite. Later.

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  7. I love those placeholders. They fit.

    Lavender pushed my buttons by being disengaged from everyone around her at the dress fitting. It shows her aloofness more than anything else does. She’s just right for someone one borrowed time.

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    1. I saw her as trying to get something important done (seating) for the wedding while everyone else was getting drunk (though having people in your wedding that get sloshed when you don’t makes it uncomfortable). It doesn’t seem like Lavender has any friends to be in her wedding (sister, 2 sisters-in-law, distant cousin) so why would she engage with them? The fact that she doesn’t have any friends didn’t jump out at me until now, though.

      Like kay said, most of the people who were horrible to Lavender were horrible to everyone. Kitty doesn’t say what she thinks of Lavender, so I thought there was a possibility that it was more of a not knowing her well, since it sounded like a sudden engagement/wedding. Lavender acts like an outsider. I get the feeling she’s from out of town, even though she’s not. Maybe that’s part of it?

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  8. I always find it helpful when one of my First Readers doesn’t get something I think is obvious. (Annoying, but helpful.) Because that means it was only obvious in my head, not on the page.

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  9. It wasn’t just Lavender, but the company you had her keep, I didn’t like the people surrounding her, which made her look better in comparison.

    The Porter family don’t like Lavender, but she’s a Blue, they probably don’t like the entire family, you can be nice, but tarred with the same brush, people don’t give you a chance.

    Lavender’s mother is bitter and jealous and openly trying to get at her daughter, Skye is stirring why else go to a complete stranger to save a dog? she comes off sulky and jealous of the family golden girl. Neither of them worried about the grieving widow with a small child potentially committing a DUI.

    So yes, we like Lavender cause she took the car keys and because despite everyone telling her Liz was back to break up the wedding, there was no melodrama between them. Yes she wanted Liz to be maid of honour so she could say she won, but she probably wanted Liz to be maid of honour, because in this crazy town she was the least likely person to throw red wine on her wedding dress and ruin the cake before the ceremony and the most likely person to stop other people doing it to her.

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  10. I think knowing that she’s like Liz, and that Liz has so few allies, made me relate to Lavender a lot. I kept thinking that Liz and Lavender together could take on the whole town. Maybe because her link to Molly isn’t that strong? Like I know they hang out and that Molly is the only one she sees, but I don’t know why. Sure they are cousins, and Evil Aunt M.L is awful to them both but there maybe needs to be more glue? I don’t really know if that’s just me or not (hence all the question marks) but your protagonists best friends are usually just more “there” some how. Molly still seems really nice, I’m not dissing here, but I want to see them be more chummy I guess. Sorry, I don’t know what I’m talking about probably.

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    1. This is almost exactly what I was thinking, too. It seems there’s a lot of “tell” not “show” in the Liz/Molly relationship. It seems like they talk a lot about how important they are to each other, but in the diner scene Liz seems happier to see the food than spend time with Molly.

      To me Molly doesn’t really stand out from the pack of people trying to pull Liz back into Burney. Nothing about what she does in her scenes with Liz makes her seem like an ally, or even like she’s very sympathetic to what Liz wants. Just about the only positive attribute Molly is given is that she’s nice enough to be a bridesmaid for someone she doesn’t like, but that’s undercut by the fact that she admits she’s doing it for the earrings.

      So we’re left with only Liz’s positive opinion of her to make us like her, which… the only other person (besides the kid, the dog, and the love interest) that Liz likes is supposed to be so terrible that she’s about to be murdered by one of the six people that has a motive to hate her.

      All of which leaves me with the impression that Liz has no backup, nobody in her corner*, which makes me… sad, I guess, for Liz’s sake, which I get the feeling is not what’s intended? It’s also my larger problem with the tone of the book. The hallmark of a Crusie book is the cast of thousands, the community, and the only sense of community I get from this so far is a poisonous one, what Liz is actively trying to disengage from, which doesn’t do anything to endear or engage anyone to me (besides the kid, the dog, and the love interest).

      *Except Anemone. I *love* Anemone. *She’s* in Liz’s corner and that makes me love her even more than the fact that she’s a total kick.

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      1. I had a similar reaction to Molly. In fact, if I were coming to the book cold, at this point I’d even consider her a suspect in the eventual murder–the old “least likely to” solution.

        Also agree Anemone is awesome–and the scenes balancing her telephonic input with the rest of the stuff going on are very well done: clear and funny and revealing all at once.

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        1. Yes, exactly! And I would hate it if Molly were the murderer, not because I latched on to anything about Molly, but because of what it would mean for Liz. Molly is the only person Liz starts off caring for unreservedly, the person she basically threw her life away for with the George Pen[i]s thing (which – I laughed. I facepalmed, but I laughed), so if that turned out to be fake or for nothing then it feels like *everything* in Liz’s past is horrible and pointless. And while there’s a character arc in that, it’s a damned depressing one that would make me, as a reader, feel cheated.

          Which reminds me: the George Pens thing… a large part of Liz’s perceived problems in Burney stem from something *Molly* did, but the whole conversation surrounding that had such an odd tone to me. When Molly apologized (sort of? In a way that didn’t seem heartfelt/earned?) Liz didn’t say “I did it for you, because I love you, I’ve moved past it” she said “stop bringing it up” like she’s still bitter about it. But I didn’t get any kind of internal bitter vibe from her mindset there, towards Molly, at least. Towards Burney, and George himself, yes, but not towards Molly. If that’s setup for a later development in their relationship, great, if not it seems like an odd note in their backstory. *Liz* may not be bitter with Molly, but *I* am, for Liz’s sake, if that makes sense. It might be the largest part of why the whole Molly relationship isn’t sitting well with me. Liz did this huge thing for Molly, but there doesn’t feel like any reciprocity there. Molly just expects Liz to fix things, because that’s what Liz does, which make Molly come across as selfish and awful (putting her on par with Patsy) and not somebody I want Liz to care about saving.

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          1. Moving off on a tangent here, I had a good friend, a mystery novelist, who’s gone now, way too soon, an absolutely lovely woman.
            i mention her here because she did that with her son when he was in high school to somebody’s campaign posters down in Florida.
            When she told me that, I laughed out loud and then decided I had to use it someday. Needless to say, since I started this book years ago, her crime was even longer ago. But she really was just the loveliest person and the last person in the world that you’d think of driving around in the dark defacing campaign posters with her kid.

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  11. Lavender is disengaged. None of her behaviour was heinous, just normal-selfish. Yet she stays calm and collected. I think that was why I admired her — she stayed calm in any and all crises. She never even sneered or spoke sharply. Even when she asked Liz to be maid of honour she was calm about it. I didn’t perceive any undercurrents of desperation or unhappiness. She seems to be hated by the other characters merely because she’s rich and not Liz. I could hate Liza in Bet Me more than I could Lavender (although I admire Liza she’s a pain in the ass half the time).

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  12. Huh. I read that moment with Molly really differently than you intended. It was definitely a must keep moment, but I thought that was because Liz saw herself more clearly than other people did, and not even Molly was giving her credit for being as competent and together as Lavender so clearly is, a brilliant illustration of how the town and her family really sees her in about fifty words.

    Or maybe that’s just because my family and friends all tell me what I’m really like and don’t always hit the mark, and I don’t always correct them.

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  13. In the conversation between Liz and Molly about how Liz is/isn’t like Lavender, I came away with Liz totally being like Lavender and Molly just not seeing it. It was the “you’re not like her except for A. Okay, you’re not like her except for A and for B.” Where A and B are really big parts of a person’s character. So, you’re nothing like her except where you are totally like her, which is a lot of who you are – so really, you two are a lot a like. What we don’t get from Molly are the things that make them different, probably for a reason since this is to be a mystery, but I would probably need that to take Molly’s side in the debate. And character things not things like “Lavender has a sister and you don’t.”

    Also, I’m dense. I never thought Lavender is asking Liz to be the maid of honor so Lavender can show the town that she won. I thought, how awkward this will be for everyone if it goes as planned and how very awkward it would be if Cash seeing both women there screws up the wedding, whether by realizing he really does want Liz (ala While You Were Sleeping wedding) or saying the wrong name (ala Ross marrying Emily but saying Rachel on Friends).

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  14. Question: Do your regular beta readers chat amongst themselves and debate the story you’ve provided them with, like we’re doing here?

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    1. It depends.

      If they’re beta-ing the entire book, nope. It’s just a huge, huge task, so they make comments on the manuscript, and then I go through and ask them questions, but it’s all individual. Beta-ing a novel is completely different from this.

      Sometimes I give pieces to Lani and Krissie and then we talk about them on an e-mail loop.

      And my critique group, the Glindas, has a blog where any of us can post a scene and then we talk about it in the comments, so yes, we do that there. We’ve all been so overwhelmed that I don’t think anybody’s posted a scene in a couple of years, but the blogs still going strong.

      But when it comes time to beta the novel, it’s always one-on-one.

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  15. What struck me with Molly was that she seems to actually have issues with Liz where is Liz does not seem to have issues with Molly. The fact that Molly is more upset about their past history makes me doubt her side of the interactions with Liz. And then this was compounded by Liz not agreeing with her regarding Lavender, and, like it was said above, we already trust Liz as the narrator. So, she’s happy Liz is back when according to Liz they both wanted to be understandably gone; she sees Liz differently than Liz sees Liz; she feels upset/conciliatory at a past event when Liz does not. All of it combines to make her less trustworthy about something on which Liz has already formed a positive opinion. And they don’t seem to act as best friends at least some of the time. Some of the time they definitely do.

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    1. You know, one of the things that’s coming out in all these comments (and thank you very much, everybody) is that the things that made me walk away from this are the things you’re all tripping over: the places where the plot creaks.

      I need George to have kept that grudge for fifteen years and I need Molly and Liz to not have talked about it, both of which are ridiculous. But a huge turning point depends on those two things, so I kept shoving characters toward those stances. It does not work. So a big part of the plot isn’t just creaking, it’s cracking. And I’m not that interested in fixing it at the moment because I have all this other stuff going on.

      But you’re all right. Neither of those two things makes sense. And because I’m shoving them in there, I’m undercutting Molly as a character.

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      1. I think George holding onto a grudge is okay. That suits his character. Small minded, petty small town ego driven. Anyone who challenges him like Luz did is bad and always bad. (Btw. Liz kind of reminds me of Reese Witherspoons character in Sweet Hone Alabama). But Molly’s doesn’t. Molly’s behavior only makes sense if 1) Molly stayed in town and while she’s stayed close to Liz it’s been phone calls and stuff so they NEVER TALKED ABOUT IT. Or 2) there is even more to the story that is so awful that they still havnt talked about it Which is what I was figuring happened.

        I know it says in the story that Molly also left but just comes back more often but that’s not what it feels like when I read it. It feels like she also stayed.

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        1. Yes, the NEVER TALKED ABOUT IT is a huge problem here. Along with several other huge problems.

          Molly’s a gypsy, but she’s getting tired of it, coming home and more and more. She didn’t have the childhood Liz had, so she actually likes Birney, and she’s going to end up settling down there. Her big problem with Birney is her mother, not Birney.

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      2. George works for me, though. He sees Liz as the reason his life didn’t turn out the way he envisioned it. Molly’s line about the prank losing him the election sold me on him still hating Liz. I instantly thought “He’s going to try to nail Liz to the wall for Lavender’s murder, no matter how flimsy the evidence,” which means Liz is going to have to solve it herself, presumably with Vince, which is a great position for the protagonist of a mystery to be in. I don’t think that part is weak at all.

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  16. So, why would Molly and Liz not discuss it? It seems there’s more going on, maybe some layer that Molly knows (and feels guilty about) but Liz doesn’t know or has misunderstood. Was there a story behind the defacing of the posters (aside from youthful high spirits)? Does Molly feel that she’s betrayed Liz somehow in the past and is afraid to talk about certain topics because this behavior might be exposed?

    Maybe something that seemed THIS HUGE to a teenager but (logically) isn’t such a big deal now (so the reader doesn’t end up hating Molly). Was she showing off to catch Cash’s eye? Why did she leave when Liz offered to take the blame? Was there a price that Liz paid for that that Liz doesn’t see or know about, but Molly does and feels guilty about?

    Anyhow. I enjoyed reading it, although I had a bit of trouble keeping all the characters and their relationships straight. I must say, that’s something I rarely have trouble with in your books, Jenny. Somehow you manage to introduce a cast of thousands in a way that allows my brain to keep them sorted. No similar names, clever intros that tie characters to songs or movies, gradual intros so I don’t have to learn everyone at the same time. I don’t know what sort of writerly magic is required to accomplish this, but I appreciate it.

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    1. There is no reason why they wouldn’t have discussed it except that I need for a turning point later when they do finally discuss it. Which means that the plot sucks and must be fixed because clearly that’s not going to fly.

      And yes on the too many people. This one needs a lot more work than the others, one of the many reasons it’s languished for many years. The only one I’ve had around longer is You Again, which I started in 2004. That one doesn’t have a plot so much as it has a series of conversations written over thirteen years, many of which contradict each other. Total nightmare of a WIP.

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      1. Could you make them not be friends after the episode? I can believe two eighteen year old friends/cousins being too ashamed/mad to talk to each other right after. And if Liz never goes back to town, it’s really easy to lose touch.

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  17. Maybe the problem is the book is named after her?
    Readers kind of expect the title character to be a good guy, or turn into one of the good guys, and to live. At least if the book has a happy ending.
    Maybe readers are going into page one already rooting for Lavender even if she does mean stuff, because they’ve already got a notion that she’s one of the good guys.

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    1. It’s called Lavender’s Blue because she gets strangled.
      That and she’s unhappy. I think there’ll be a subtitle like “A Liz Danger Mystery,” too.
      There is no depth to which I will not stoop.

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  18. Could you flesh out lavender’s personality in a few small places before Liz meets her so that we have a fuller picture? Like how her mom says about cash “everyone goes to hell in his own way” (effing love that, so true) but it doesn’t clue us in as to why lavender is hell. Could one more sentence that’s her mom’s style of gossip help? Because besides the bears her mom seems solid.

    If we should trust patsy porters opinion of lavender, despite the fact that Patsy’s crazy, can you give us a little more impetus for that in her first scene so that we understand the dress fitting scene better?

    I didn’t dislike lavender, but I think she reads a little robotic. Lacking some depth and warmth. On my second read through tonight I noticed the robotic parts seem manipulative, in the dress fitting and bar scenes (before the overt dealing and maipulation in the diner) so that could be amped up?

    Do Vince and Maribeth have history? It kinda reads that way. Unless I’m crazy, shouldn’t rule that out.

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    1. Vince and Maribeth do not have a sexual history. But it’s a small town, and she worked every day at the bank, and he’d try to get to know people because it would be his job. They’d respect each other because they’re good people who work hard at their jobs, and they’d overlook human flaws. I can see why Maribeth, looking for somebody steady to keep Liz in Birney, would focus on Vince because Vince and Liz are so much alike.

      Fleshing out Lavender too early is a mistake, I think. (Cutting back on everything in this draft would be good.) I’m okay with people like Lavender the way Liz likes Lavender and then finding out through Lavender’s actions that she’s not the person Liz (and the reader) thought she was. Everything on the page about Lavender is true, there’s no gotcha, but there’s not much on the page yet, and the pressure’s going to build.

      I really thought Lavender bargaining with Peri’s safety was going to be a big clue. Oh, well; that’ll get more obvious as the story moves on.

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  19. I enjoyed the read, so thanks for that. I didn’t so much like Lavender as find her interesting – more interesting than most of the characters. I wonder, does Molly reflect the child Liz, and Lavender the adult? Like when your childhood friend Isn’t such a good fit for you in adulthood?

    My other big point is: why does Lavender have to be bad? In order to justify her murder? Because, actually, good people get murdered all the time. That’s why murderers are punished rather than celebrated as community heroes.

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    1. Not justify, motivate. Nobody’s plotting to kill Lavender. She just says and does the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time in front of the wrong person.
      The smartest thing I ever read about writing mysteries is that the key to story isn’t in the murderer, it’s in the victim. Couple that with the fact that one of the things that makes a small community work–any small community including office groups and families–is a tacit agreement on what can and cannot be said and done. There are boundaries that protect the group. If somebody trangresses those boundaries, the people who are invested in them fight back. So one character’s reaction of “My god, she’s a bitch” is another character’s “She’s gonna die.”

      As for Molly, I just did not get her on the page. Total characterization failure.

      Hey, WIP.

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      1. One of my favourite Ngaio Marsh mysteries revolves around the murder of just about the sweetest character in the book (an elderly peer known as Bunchy) and that worked.

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  20. I enjoyed reading this, it looks great. The only reason I could see that the people who know Lavender well dislike and fear her must be that she is a sociopath, who is entertained by other peoples emotional responses without really feeling them herself. It’s why the man she has targeted thinks she is fine and why Liz, who does not know her, is taken in by her. Why her mother and sister are acidic and alienated. The only way for them to deal with her is to offer her a new target, be it a dog, or Liz.
    I love the desperately mad ML and the voice of sanity, Anemone.

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    1. I didn’t read all the way to the end of Lavender’s Blue, but from what I read, plus all the comments, I’m inclined to agree with you about Lavender’s character (or, actually, lack of it).

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  21. I read the conversation between Liz and Molly differently. It felt to me that this was a conversation that they had had many, many times over the years in pretty much just the way that it happened in the diner – Molly trying to apologize and talk about it, and Liz not wanting to talk about it. If that were the case, it would feel emotionally reasonable to me (and might or might not help address the plot hole). Molly periodically brings it up, she wants to talk about it, she feels horrible about it, and she wants to apologize to Liz. And Liz always deflects – she does not want to talk about it, because talking about it makes her feel negative things toward Molly, who is a person that she cannot afford to feel negative things toward.

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    1. I also read an element of Molly’s still feeling guilty, no matter how many times Liz has reassured her, and Liz is just over this same conversation.

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