Whether I’m a purist or simply have bland taste, I’m not sure. I just know that I tend to favor things straightforward and unadorned. I have a wardrobe of solid color clothing, prefer my cars without dealer-added doodads, and if I was more of a drinker (I’m really not) I suppose I’d go for bourbon straight or on the rocks, leaving fancy cocktails for the more adventurous. And when it comes to my reading material, I usually don’t go for genre bending projects, and enjoy pretty linear narratives the best.
But then, masterful writers can always change my mind.
You could consider Alaya Dawn Johnson’s Trouble The Saints (2020 Tor-Tom Doherty Associates) traditional crime fiction in a mid-twentieth century setting, if you like, or a dreamy dark fantasy, or literary fiction. Each of those labels apply. Johnson’s novel is set in the early 1940’s New York underworld, specifically in Harlem nightclubs and the numbers racket, where light-skinned Phyllis Green (AKA Phyllis Leblanc, AKA “Pea”) is one of the so-called “Saints”, blessed — or afflicted — with the JuJu curse of magic hands that can read people, foresee the future in puzzling dreams and, in her case, make her a deadly assassin, her arsenal a holster of lethal blades hidden in her garter. Employed by a vicious Russian mobster, Pea believes she’s ridding the world of evil people, and that’s how she justifies too many bloody deaths to even count. Till she discovers that she’s been played all along, that is, and learns that no one really is who they seem to be, not even her lover Dev, who the discovers is an undercover cop.
Partly set in Harlem, partly in a small town in upstate New York, the novel is told through Pea’s perspective, then Dev’s, and even Pea’s pal, decadent cabaret dancer Tamara. This is all done in lyrical prose that might take some getting used to for fans of more straightforward narrative genre storytelling, and that’s partly why the multiple labels apply. Crime fiction? Dark fantasy? Literary fiction? I still haven’t decided, only concluding that Johnson skillfully interweaved classic underworld gangster intrigue with Southern mysticism and doomed love while confronting institutionalized racism, and her darkly poetic novel had me completely in its spell.
If you haven’t read Trouble The Saints yet, but plan to, I recommend Alaya Dawn Johnson’s 7.31.20 essay at Crime Reads (link below): “Finding Room For Black Hope, Black Justice, And Black Love In Noir Fiction”. The author grapples with a portion of a topic that’s vexed me for some time (and pops up here often enough), specifically, how to process noir, mystery and crime fiction classics – whether the iconic novels, pulp stories or films – that as products of their eras are usually awash in ethnic, racial and gender stereotypes, dismissiveness and misogyny. For my part, I’ve opted to ‘compartmentalize’ so many classic and not-so-classic works, refusing to digest them through contemporary filters and acknowledging their often-dreadful anachronistic flaws (even while cherishing them). Johnson struggled with classic noir’s rampant racism, pointing to Raymond Chandler and Farewell, My Lovely in particular. But she also notes, “…noir is not only a genre about darkness, but about light. Not only about corruption, but about a desperate, often failed search for justice. Noir was the perfect genre for the story I wanted to tell, not in spite of its white and racist history, but because of it.” For her, noir is part of a genre “whose very premise undermined the racist conclusions of its most popular writers”.
Come to think of it, reading Johnson’s piece before starting her novel might not hurt.