The Astonishing Mistakes of Dahlia Moss by Max Wirestone

This year at San Diego Comic-Con, Orbit gave away copies of The Astonishing Mistakes of Dahlia Moss, the second book in the Dahlia Moss series. Never one to turn down a free book, I snatched it right up and promptly discovered that I had struck gold, for this book is freaking hilarious.

Dahlia is basically a geeky cozy mystery (although there is a little gore and some very unfortunate vomit). At the start of the book, Dahlia Moss is working unofficially as a private detective while she works on getting her license. She’s dating a botanist named Nathan and flirting with a police detective named Anton Shuler. She’s also started online gaming with a Twitch following, which basically means that she plays games online while people who are also online watch her play and yell at her.  Twitch is a real thing that allows people to watch other people play through video games (among other things).

The use of Twitch chat as a Greek Chorus, or, as Dahlia refers to it, as her personal Statler and Waldorf (the muppets) is pure genius as it not only helps move the plot along but also provides the most glorious comedy, matched only by Dahlia’s new bodyguard, Daniel, and by Nathan as the botanist who woos Dahlia with cacti.

The plot kicks into motion when Dalia gets a large donation in her Twitch tip jar. The donor, whose user name is Doctor XXX then asks Dahlia to meet him at a hotel:

“Gosh, I don’t know, Doctor XXX,” I said, trying to sound positive and not at all concerned. “I have a plan for tomorrow.”

This was true, in that my plan was not to be drugged and murdered in a hotel.

Meeting someone named Doctor XXX at a place I had never heard of was so obviously a bad idea that even Twitch was against it. DON’T DO IT!!! said Twitch chat, with all caps and exclamation points and Kappas, which are these screaming disembodied heads that are hard to explain because they don’t make a lot of sense out of context. Actually, now that I think about it, they don’t make a lot of sense in context. But no matter.

Needless to say, despite the advice of Twitch chat, Dahlia ends up at the hotel and bodies start piling up. To add to her difficulties, she has to play a game she doesn’t know how to play in a tournament and when she’s not playing (which is most of the time) one of the other players keeps handing her a baby named Undine and taking off for “bathroom breaks.”

Eventually, during a break from gaming, Dahlia wanders around the engine room of a boat (for detective reasons) with her laptop and Twitch chat for company:

“Who’s that,” asked Twitch chat. It’s important to remember that not everyone was watching me yesterday, so they weren’t necessarily filled in on the business. I was going to explain, but the rest of Twitch explained the business to themselves.

Well, said Twitch chat. Some crazy person asked Louise [Dahlia’s online name] to meet them at a hotel.

Oh, don’t do that, said the newcomers.

She already did. Except the person was missing. And there was a murder. And Louise is still trying to find the guy.

Why would she do that? Asked more of Twitch chat.

She crazy, Twitch chat answered.

Let me give you some context for how funny this book is. As I mentioned, I got this book at Comic-Con. Comic-Con is a strange place. Every year the lines get worse and every year I vow not to stand in them and every year I stand in them anyway and I get bitchier and bitchier about it. This year I got to Comic-Con early in the morning and I waited in a line for three hours at the end of which I had a chance to draw a ticket out of a bag. If the ticket said, “WINNER” then I could give that ticket to my daughter who would use it to have the entire cast of Steven Universe (the world’s most wonderful cartoon) sign a poster for her, thus cementing my role as Mother of the Year for at least ten minutes. If the ticket did not say “WINNER,” then I would have wasted three hours. I did this VOLUNTARILY.

Yes, I got a winning ticket and my daughter shed tears of joy, so that worked out well. STILL. It was a long morning with no promise of payoff and I was very cranky about it.  But there I sat, in line for three hours, reading Dahlia Moss and laughing my face off. No amount of stress, sleep deprivation or lack of coffee could keep me from laughing out loud and occasionally yelling aloud along with Twitch chat to the occasional consternation of people near me. Even later in the day, when I was even more hungry and tired and cranky, the book kept me laughing. I seriously spent a whole day at Comic-Con following my daughter around and reading Dahlia Moss, which also has the advantage of being a lightweight paperback (or even lighter as an ebook, but I like paper). It is so funny that even Comic-Con cannot defeat it.

The book has romantic elements but is not centered around them. One fun quirk about the heroes is that neither one is conventionally good looking. Nathan is cute but very skinny. Dahlia says “he looks like a turtle who has somehow gotten out of his shell.” Meanwhile, deadpan snarker Shuler has a bit of a pudge. I find the fact that neither of them represents physical perfection but they are still considered attractive to be incredibly endearing. There’s no sex, at least, none that we get to read about. It’s more romance-friendly than romantic.

The book also does a great job of portraying geek culture as a diverse place that includes some assholes (no matter what is happening, someone on Twitch always finds time to comment “Take off your shirt”). But it is generally full of all ages, genders, and ethnicities (both geek culture in general and this book in particular). Some of the gamers have great social skills and some not so much. Dahlia doesn’t come across as any one kind of geeky stereotype. She’s just a person who really loves games and also Pokémon.

After I got home, I found the first book in the series, The Unfortunate Decisions of Dahlia Moss, and read it for the first time while I had a mysterious Evil Death Headache that involved throwing up and sleeping a lot. I found the first book to be like the pilot of a TV show. The characters hadn’t taken full shape yet. The second book not only fleshes out the characters from the first book but also introduces the commentary from Twitch, which really increases the funny. Still, even though the first book was not as great as the second, it had me laughing through my Evil Death Headache fog and that takes some doing, let me tell you.

The most recent book, The Questionable Decisions of Dahlia Moss, comes out on January 9, 2018. I’m dying to read it, but maybe I should save it for a root canal or a funeral or something equally traumatic. It seems difficult to defeat the power of Dahlia.

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The Astonishing Mistakes of Dahlia Moss by Max Wirestone

March 14, 2017

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