The dating novel and the mystery novel often exist as two distinct entities, but they are actually very compatible genres. Both have mysterious men lurking in dark corners. Both often deal with women in some sort of jeopardy. And both often give the protagonists sassy sidekicks who try to keep him or her out of trouble.
So combining the dating story and the suspense thriller is actually a natural move, particularly when it’s done with the humor and intelligence of Harley Jane Kozak’s Dating Dead Men. In the novel, Kozak, perhaps best known as an actress in such films as Parenthood and Arachnophobia, creates a winning heroine named Wollie Shelley, a Los Angeles greeting card artist and owner of a small greeting card shop. She also has an unorthodox side project -- as “research” for a book being written by a radio therapist with the questionable name of Dr. Cookie. Dubbed “the Dating Project,” it requires Wollie to date forty men in sixty days. That alone could be enough for a novel, but Wollie also has a paranoid schizophrenic brother who starts frantically calling her from the mental hospital where he lives, insinuating that a murder takes place.
Wollie goes to visit him after one of her “dates” and does find a dead body en route to the hospital. This leads her to an encounter with an attractive stranger dressed as a doctor whom she finds suspicious but oddly appealing. Kozak cleverly combines all aspects of Wollie’s life -- the dating and the puzzle surrounding her brother and the pseudo-doctor -- with grace and wit. She even throws in a funny subplot about Wollie’s quest to upgrade her greeting card shop (located in a questionable area of town, in another charming quirk).
With all this going on, though, the book tends to get overcrowded, and characters are often pushed to the side, including Wollie’s brother P.B. and her friends Joey and Fredreeq. I would have particularly liked to know more about Joey, a former actress who bears a mysterious scar which is never really explained.
Still, Dating Dead Men is engaging and entertaining with a likable main character whom we root for mainly because she is so clearly in over her head. After all, dating is hard enough. Why, Wollie seems to ask, is she being asked to cope with a murder as well? Just be glad that she is.