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. 

Darkness And Light: Trouble The Saints

Trouble The Saints

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.

Saints - Crime Reads

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.

https://crimereads.com/finding-room-for-black-hope-black-justice-and-black-love-in-noir-fiction/

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