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updated: 4/14/2014 3:18 PM

'Frog Music' explores unsolved murder from 1876

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  • "Frog Music" is the latest from Emma Donoghue.

      "Frog Music" is the latest from Emma Donoghue.
    ASSOCIATED PRESS/LITTLE, BROWN AND CO.

 
By Rasha Madkour, Associated Press

In 1876 in San Francisco, amid a heat wave and smallpox epidemic, an idiosyncratic frog-catching, pants-wearing, bicycle-riding woman is fatally shot through the window of a railroad boardinghouse.

This real-life unsolved murder is the basis of Emma Donoghue's new novel, "Frog Music." The story is told through Blanche Beunon, a burlesque dancer who is in the same room when her friend Jenny Bonnet is killed.

The novel goes back and forth between the shellshocked, mystery-solving Blanche and her earlier, erotic-dancing, carefree self. Along the way, Donoghue masterfully transports readers to an era of dung-covered cobbled roads, unspeakably cruel baby farms, deep suspicion of Chinese immigrants and unruly saloons.

What "Frog Music" lacks, however, is the gripping storytelling that made Donoghue's previous novel "Room" -- about a mother and son held captive -- such a beautifully poignant read. The premise of "Frog Music" is wild enough, and yet Donoghue pushes it over the top with explicit sex scenes, then bogs it down with daily minutiae that does little to enhance the story or its characters -- or make us care for them much. Even the central whodunit question doesn't garner much suspense and is ultimately resolved without much satisfaction.

Ironically, the Author's Note section of the book, which explains what characters and facts came from historical records and newspaper articles, was a more interesting read than the novel that preceded it.

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