Short Reading Lessons in Writing: Goodbye, Sue Ellen

A morning short story reading group meets at one of our library branches on the second Monday of each month.  The library provides the short stories, snacks, and a staff member to make coffee and keep things moving along. 

That staff member is me.

This is going to be quick—I had to go home after the meeting because Janie was home sick today* and I’m not feeling too hot myself at the moment.

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Today, we discussed “Goodbye, Sue Ellen” by Gillian Roberts, which I found in the 1993 Malice Domestic 2 anthology and was also included in the third annual Year’s 25 Finest Crime and Mystery Stories.

In this story, a man marries a dull dingbat of a chewing gum heiress, only to find that his position as company president is merely decorative—her family will not allow outsiders to run the business and thwart his every move. He decides to circumvent his prenup and gain control of his wife’s shares by murdering her.  He tries several plans without success—she miraculously escapes each time.

Finally, at the annual family/company picnic, he and his wife are in a canoe together and he tries to toss her overboard, but pitches himself into the water instead.  His wife holds him under with her paddle until he dies and rows back alone to tell her family that she’d carried out their plan for the good of the company, but thought her husband understood and accepted it, as he’d been so attentive lately and had said, “Goodbye, Sue Ellen,” just before he jumped.

Here’s what the group thought:

Hilarity is in the eye of the beholder . . .

The readers who liked this story thought it was hilarious.  The bumbling husband and his ridiculous plans, the harebrained wife and her hairsbreadth escapes, and the twist at the end when it turned out the would-be-murderer had been targeted all along.

Those who didn’t like the story . . . really didn’t find it funny.  One thought it was chilling and macabre, while another thought murder shouldn’t be funny and the motivations weren’t enough to warrant killing someone.

The only exception was one reader who said she had experience with domestic violence, and thought the story was scary—but she loved it because the husband got his.

 . . . And so is good writing.

This is the first story that we’ve shared in this group that fostered a disagreement about the quality of the writing.  Even when a reader has disliked a plot or a character, they’ve found something to praise about the descriptions or the settings or the emotional content.

Not so with this story.  Again, those that liked it thought it was well-written.  Those that didn’t . . . really didn’t.

One found it far too fluffy and the characters one-dimensional, while another found the fluff-factor refreshing and thought the characters were well-rounded enough—there was enough background detail to know that the husband was a good-looking screw-up and that the wife hadn’t had much affection or attention in her life.

A few agreed it was whimsical but two thought it was conventional and trite, though one reader thought maybe it hadn’t been when it was written.

The argument went on from there.  When I mentioned that this story was included in the third annual Year’s 25 Finest Crime and Mystery Stories, one person elbowed her neighbor and said, “See?” The elbowee said, “Maybe there were there only twenty-five mystery stories published that year.”

Time may be on the writer’s side . . .

I reminded the group that this story was written eighteen years ago and asked whether they would be interested in reading more of this author’s work, to see if they liked her later writing. Several said they might, just to see.

One asked me whether I thought writers improved over time**—she seemed puzzled by the concept, but game.

One said she wouldn’t.  Once she decided that she didn’t like an author,that was it.

I suggested to her that she might try one of Ms. Roberts’ longer pieces of fiction that had a different kind of plot from this story—Ms. Robert has written a popular series of longer mysteries about two female private eyes, one of whom is a “woman of certain age” mentoring the younger woman.

So I asked the reader to try the first two chapters of the first one to see if she liked them.  And to report back next month.

As she left the meeting, she seemed skeptical***—but as I was walking across the library floor on my way to the back, we saw each other and she waved the book at me and rolled her eyes.

Good enough for me!

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*She spent the hours after midnight throwing up and overshooting every receptacle I offered her.

** I said I hoped so.

*** What she said was that I was a big strict meanie for assigning her homework.  But she was smiling at the time.