After back-to-back mystery/crime fiction novels set in 1950’s New York, I was ready for a break, and Layne Fargo’s first novel Temper (2019, Simon & Shuster) provided just that.
Author Wendy Heard mentions Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 film starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, in her dustjacket back cover praise for Fargo’s Temper. It’s a perfect reference. There are no swollen joints or black feathers sprouting out of anyone’s shoulder blades, no practice barres or frayed leg warmers. Temper isn’t set in New York’s ballet world, but in Chicago’s indie theater scene. But much like the darkly surreal Black Swan, Temper deals with passionate creatives’ self-absorbed and manipulative relationships, the wafer-thin line between on stage performances and offstage drama, and the horrors that may be revealed when creativity is fully unleashed.
Struggling actor Kira Rascher lands the role of a lifetime with Joanna Cuyler’s cutting edge theater group, which means she’ll have to work with mercurial actor/director Malcom Mercer, the indie scene’s bad boy, notorious for pushing performers past all reasonable limits and leaving a long trail of broken hearts — and minds — in his wake. Yes, Kira-Joanna-Malcom form a doomed love triangle, but the fact is, Temper is more of a love-and-destruction octagon that sucks in everyone in Kira’s circle, from part-time bi-bedmates to ex’s going way back to high school scandals.
Temper isn’t a mystery novel and couldn’t be labeled crime fiction by any stretch. The cover calls it ‘psychological suspense’, and I’ll go along with that. Like Black Swan, it defies easy categorizing. But it was an excellent read, and for us residents of the big city on the inland ocean, Temper was brimming with spot-on locales and atmosphere. Sure, a savvy reader may guess where the story is inexorably heading (and I did), but it was one heck of darkly fun trek getting there, thanks to Layne Fargo’s skillful multi-POV writing. Check it out.