Elizabeth Hand’s Cass Neary.

A couple posts back I mentioned Susan Shapiro’s article “Genre Fluidity” from the September/October issue of Writer’s Digest magazine. That’s genre, not gender, and while the piece largely dealt with rethinking in-progress projects for altogether different genres, the genre bending notion was top of mind while I concurrently wrapped up Elizabeth Hand’s new Cass Neary novel, The Book Of Lamps And Banners, a 2020 Mulholland Books hardcover, and a textbook example of “genre fluidity”.

I don’t recall if I bought Hand’s first Cass Neary novel, Generation Loss (2008), as soon as it came out or discovered it sometime later. All I remember is how completely surprised and utterly enthralled I was by the author’s addictive mix of (what might seem at first like) indulgent literary fiction with mystery/crime fiction…all dosed with an unexpected bit of dark fantasy. 

Or not. 

If you’ve read Hand’s Cass Neary novels, you know what I mean. If you haven’t…well, you just have to plunge in and see for yourself. 

To begin with, Cass Neary herself is a memorable mix, like those Just Kids Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe merged into one person, with a decadent and dangerous dash of Nan Goldin and Chrissie Hynde stirred in. Briefly a gallery scene darling for her stark and daring photos of New York’s new wave scene and the Big Apple’s rotten core, Soho salon sales and a now-collectible coffee table monograph’s money promptly went right up her nose and into her veins. After an extended stay in rehab, Cass emerged as a has-been, reduced to working in the Strand Bookstore in order to hold onto her rent-controlled apartment. Working the Strand’s stock room, that is, following some ‘incidents’ with customers.

Still fueled by a flirtation with any available substance and ever on a doomed quest to reunite with her soulmate, Quinn, the remnants of Cass’ reputation (or notoriety) drag her into mysterious situations and ever deepening danger from coastal Maine to Europe. Seemingly innocent assignments and chance meetings inevitably go bad and leave behind a frightening body count. By the second novel, she’s a person of interest to the U.S. authorities following the deadly aftermath of her brief stay in Maine. In the opening pages of The Book Of Lamps And Banners, Cass is skulking through London with a thousand stolen Euros and a fake passport, evading Interpol. Another ‘chance meeting’ (or is it?) finds her tagging along with an old stateside acquaintance, now a rare book dealer delivering a rare and priceless book of ancient dark magic. No surprise, the handoff doesn’t go down as planned, the buyer is murdered, and before the night is out, Cass is mixed up with a troubled young app developer, white supremacists, Nordic mysticists and murderers.  Like each of the Cass Neary novels, the line between reality and something ‘other’ is indistinct here, much of it filtered through her beloved Konica’s lens onto increasingly hard-to-come by Tri-X film. Though Cass Neary’s a flesh and blood person with all too-human foibles and addictions, photography is something nearly mystical for her, which may be why she winds up with weird earth goddess worshippers, Neo-Nazi ritualists and murderous madmen hunting for dark grimoires. 

Hard-boiled and classic mystery fans beware: There are no gumshoes here. No retired cops attending AA meetings in between solving crimes, no suburban caterers or chefs stumbling over dead bodies and definitely no kitty cats sniffing out crooks. Elizabeth Hand’s Cass Neary novels are unrelentingly dark and gritty, whether cruising rain-soaked London streets or stomping through eerie Swedish forests. Is she an investigator? Well, a reluctant – albeit determined – one, yes. But Cass Neary has more in common with Lou Reed than Lew Archer.

Elizabeth Hand’s The Book Of Lamps And Banners can deservedly be shelved in any bookstore’s Fiction & Literature section. It certainly should be cross-merchandised in the Mystery section. And some renegade booksellers will put it in their SF/Fantasy/Horror sections, and I’m not sure that’s entirely wrong. Hand blurs genre lines with a skill that mirrors her Cass Neary’s deft touch with the camera shutter. If I sound a little too fannish here, I’m not ashamed. For me, The Book Of Lamps And Banners was a literate neo-noir masterpiece, as each of the prior Cass Neary novels has been, and it’ll be a long, long wait for the next one, presuming that Elizabeth Hand will grace us with another. 

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