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Pretty as a Picture

June 17, 2022

When I reviewed The Maid by Nita Prose, Jenny commented that Molly the maid might have a few things in common with Marissa the film editor in Pretty as a Picture by Elizabeth Little, and she does. Both of these first-person narrators see things the other characters don’t because they seem to be somewhere on the autism spectrum, and both of them are good at their jobs because of the way their minds work. While editing a film being made about a murder, Marissa finds herself in the middle of a real-life murder mystery, and she becomes a somewhat unconventional detective.

Marissa introduces herself by saying “sometimes I think everything wrong with my life can be located in the space between what I should have said and what actually came out of my mouth. No matter how hard I try, no matter how well I prepare, the right words are, for me, forever out of reach.” She has more trouble than most, but at the same time, many people–like me–will identify with her problem, to some extent.

I also identify with her urge “to know everything….I won’t just read one book, I’ll read every book. I won’t just click on one link, I’ll click link after link after link until my eyes cross and my battery dies and I know I’m going to have to clear my cache in the morning because I ended up in some very, very dark places.”

The way she processes emotion turns out to be a fun and accessible way to further the plot of this novel about making a movie:
“It’s possible I’ve spent so much time watching movies that the language of film has infiltrated some primal, necessary part of my brain. I catch myself processing my own emotions in scenes, in shots, in dialogue. Like when there’s a burn in my sinuses and a sick clench in the back of my throat, but my brain doesn’t supply a single word (sadness). Instead, it offers up a two-second clip from Terms of Endearment: Huckleberry Fox, inconsolable, at Debra Winger’s bedside.”
Like me, you may have to look up who Huckleberry Fox played in the movie, but many of Marissa’s other movie references bring up an instantly recognizable emotion, like when Marissa thinks of Bruce Willis saying “I’m starting to get a bad feeling up here” or when she pictures Admiral Ackbar (because she recognizes a trap).

We learn a bit about movie-making, like when Marissa says “when I’m reviewing footage, working on an early cut, I hear those words a thousand times a day—more, maybe. Action, cut, action, cut, action, cut, action cut. These aren’t commands, not for me. They’re more like everyday punctuation. A capital letter. A period. An indication that I should pay attention to what’s going on in the middle. Actors and on-set crew, though, they have a more visceral, Pavlovian response. I’m pretty sure if you went to any coffee shop in Santa Monica and shouted ‘Places!’ half the customers would freeze.”

Marissa plays to her strengths in the second half of the novel, using her lack of preconceptions about what she sees and what other people will do to solve a murder mystery. She says “when you think about it, an editor—that is to say, a film editor—isn’t really so different from a detective. We’re both presented with an incomplete collection of imperfect information and tasked with piecing together a coherent narrative.”

As she pieces together the story, Marissa’s point of view continues to be a delightful variation on a standard detective plot. One of the high points is when an interviewer asks her what a situation was like and she responds “if you’re asking me whether my annual repeat viewings of Die Hard, Toy Soldiers, and Under Siege somehow prepared me mentally or physically for the experience of having to find a way out of an enclosed space because someone wanted to hurt me, let me assure you, the answer is no.”

Having a person like Marissa investigate gives a murder mystery new stakes–so if you like murder mysteries, you might want to try this one.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 17, 2022 11:19 am

    I’m not a murder mystery reader, but you make this one sound like a lot of fun!

    • June 17, 2022 11:28 am

      It is! I’m only an occasional murder mystery reader, but this one is more about how the narrator puts together the clues than it is about the mystery of who is the murderer.

  2. June 17, 2022 12:31 pm

    Fascinating premise, from how you describe it, and clearly worth considering!

    • June 17, 2022 1:55 pm

      It is! I love the movie scene reactions because I think many people do that–I certainly do, like with the image of Admiral Ackbar. It’s a little like quoting instead of talking, which we also like to do at our house (thinking of Mrs Who from A Wrinkle in Time).

      • June 17, 2022 4:34 pm

        It’s been a while since I read the L’Engle, and I’ve quite forgotten Mrs Who’s mannerism…

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