Death by Discount is a mystery novel by Mount Mercy University English professor, Mary Vermillion. When she first started writing the novel nearly 20 years ago, she had just gotten tenure and needed a break from academic writing. She was tired of trying to please committees and decided it was time to please herself. She wanted to try her hand at a genre she's always loved: mystery. And I'm glad she did! Death by Discount is a funny, mesmerizing mystery that keeps you guessing until the last possible second.
The thing that I most appreciated about Death by Discount was the LGBTQ+ representation. Mara Gilgannon is a lesbian from the small town of Aldoburg, Iowa. She grew up there, living with her aunt Zee and her partner Glad, after Mara's parents discovered her kissing another girl. Mara lived with her aunts until she went to college, and later decided to settle in Iowa City, a larger college town. She became a radio host, just like her aunts Zee and Glad. However, the story kicks off when Glad is murdered and she decides to return to Aldoburg. There, she realizes that not only has Glad been killed, the word "dyke" had been written in white spray paint over her body. Thinking it might be a hate crime, Mara takes it upon herself to protect Zee and find the killer before it's too late.
As I sit at my desk writing this review, I look at my bookshelves and I'm embarrassed at the lack of queer stories. Though in today's society, writing depicting LGBTQ+ characters is becoming more commonplace, I think we still tend to push queer stories to the margins of society. It makes me think of the fact that, until I got to my senior year of high school, I had never read a novel that depicted a character who wasn't white and heterosexual. I find that sad because it definitely limited my world-view, especially because I grew up in a small, white community. As hate normally arises out of ignorance, it makes me wonder, if there were more novels like Death by Discount that normalize queer story arcs, would there be so much hate for the LGBTQ+ community? If people read about experiences outside their own, we could grow to accept and understand one another more readily. I love that Vermillion writes many of her characters as LGBTQ+, because I think that's definitely something we need more of in today's literature.
Another thing about Death by Discount that I absolutely love is that Mara gets a happy ending. Too often, when authors depict LGBTQ+ characters, they get killed off in the end. Bury Your Gays is a literary trope that flourished in the early 20th century, and still persists in modern media.
"The Pattern of this trope's usage states that in a narrative work (novels especially), which features a same-gender romantic couple, one of the lovers must die or otherwise be destroyed by the end of the story" (Hulan para. 3).
This was a trope that originated because of the laws and regulations against homosexual relationships. Surely, writers couldn't bee too radical with their character's sexualities lest they wanted to face extreme backlash. They often had to "punish" their characters for being homosexual, mainly by killing them off. Not only is this popular in literature, it is popular in television as well. According to GLAAD,
"25 lesbian and bisexual female-identifying characters have died on scripted broadcast and cable television and streaming series since the beginning of 2016...Most of these deaths served no other purpose than to further the narrative of a more central (and often straight, cisgender) character" (Yohannes para. 2).
In the midst of all of this, it is refreshing that, at the end of Death by Discount, Mara is able to find a happy romantic ending to her story.
Another interesting aspect of Death by Discount is that, interwoven with the mystery of Glad's death, there is another conflict about if Aldoburg residents should allow Walmart into their town. There is a lot of discussion about the dangers of discount stores like Walmart and the business practices that could cause a lot of harm to a small community. It opens up great discussion about the pros and cons of a huge corporation encroaching into the town, and Vermillion even writes a scene wherein the whole town comes to debate it. Death by Discount's overall premise is one that I have not encountered in a mystery novel before, and I definitely recommend that you check it out.
Not only does Death by Discount offer important social commentary, it's also just a fun read. I enjoyed Mara's character as she's spunky and often offers a lot of funny comments like, "I'm a living example of Murphy's Law. Just when you think things can't get worse, they do." And, Death by Discount is actually the first in a series of mystery novels featuring Mara Gilgannon! So, if you decide to check out Death by Discount, I'm sure you'll be interested in Murder by Mascot and Seminal Murder as well.
Hulan, Haley (2017) "Bury Your Gays: History, Usage, and Context," McNair Scholars Journal: Vol. 21 : Iss. 1 , Article 6. Available at: https://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/mcnair/vol21/iss1/6
Yohannes, Alamin. “'Bury Your Gays': Why Are So Many Lesbian TV Characters Dying Off?”NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 4 Nov. 2016, www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/bury-your-gays-why-are-so-many-queer-women-dying-n677386.
Jessica Purgett is a recent Summa Cum Laude graduate of Mount Mercy University. She majored in English and marketing with minors in Spanish and creative writing.