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The Writing Class - Jincy Willett I picked up this book because I found the concept amusing: a burned out author who now gets by teaching creative writing extension courses has to solve a murder in her class.

The Writing Class follows the conventions of a "Ten Little Indians"-style murder mystery. We're introduced to an entire class of writer wannabes, and then we spend the book trying, along with the main character, to guess who the killer is. Jincy Willett is funny in a sharp and satirical but humane way, and she has a real gift for characterization. Each of her characters has depths to be unraveled, even the least-mentioned ones, and by the end, like Amy Gallup, the fictional author who one cannot help noticing seems to have a lot in common with Jincy Willett, it's easy to check off reasons why each and every one of them could or could not be the whack job who's escalated from leaving nasty, destructive critiques to murder.

Willett is also just a damn good writer. This isn't a "prosey" book in particular, but the prose is controlled and clever all the way through. It's a pleasure to read a real Writer at work.

The one conceit Willett allows herself — the "gimme" I'll give her for the sake of the story — is that even after it becomes apparent that someone who they're sharing manuscript critiques with may well be a literal psychopath, the entire writing class insists they love the class so much they want to keep meeting. This works brilliantly in maintaining tension, since at every class (and the inevitable "gotcha" that follows as the person they dub "the Sniper" makes another move) everyone is a suspect and the reader is mentally gathering clues. While I found it a little implausible that a real group of random adults would all be up for continuing, especially after someone dies, I was almost convinced by their enthusiastic immersion in the class and by the frisson of thrill that was surely the real motivation for most of them. ("Holy crap, one of us is a murderer! Isn't this exciting?")

There are moments, throughout The Writing Class, that made me envious of Willett's observational powers and skill at crafting her observations into words. Amy Gallup of course gets the most page space, and as her own life story emerges in dribs and drabs until we have the whole complex human being laid out before us, we also get to see into her mind, which is the mind of a gifted if jaded writer with powerful skills of observation and analysis, making the entire book suspect as an exercise in meta-fiction if we make the mistake that Amy Gallup advises her students not to make, and infer too much about an author from her characters.

On another level, The Writing Class is damned funny for anyone who's dabbled in being a writer, whether you're a published author or an MFA student or just someone who's taken a workshop or two. It's not accurate to say Willett "skewers" the writing industry, as she obviously has a great love for real writing, and like Amy Gallup, she has genuine affection for those who truly want to be writers, however hapless most of them may be. But there's a true-to-life cynicism in Amy's assessment of her students and their work (Willett actually presents excerpts from each student, written in a variety of styles and levels of skill, an accomplished feat of writing in itself) and the sort of people who take writing classes.

Purely as a murder mystery, The Writing Class also worked well for me. I confess: I didn't guess the murderer. I thought I knew who it was by the end of the book, but I was wrong. I was a little worried that Willett would pull some gimmick out of her ass like some mystery writers do, but no, when the culprit was revealed, everything made sense, and I skimmed back over the incidents involving each suspect and agreed that it fit. (Though I still think my guess was reasonable too.)

I'd never heard of Jincy Willett before I read this book, and now I want to seek out her other books. It was an unexpected surprise, and gets my highest recommendation, especially if you are a would-be writer. I want to take a writing workshop by Amy Gallup! Without the murders, hopefully.