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/

Rooting For The Villain, Until You Can’t.

Bonnie - A Novel

Another Bonnie and Clyde book? Clearly writers continue to be intrigued by the Depression era duo, publishers seem happy to put their books out, and readers keep buying them

Heck, I did.

Not that I’m qualified to quibble over historical details, but Christina Schwarz’ new Simon & Schuster hardcover Bonnie has obviously been carefully researched (the novel’s backmatter details some of it in fact) so I’ll leave it up to true crime and B&C experts to pick apart minutae. I wasn’t looking for a history lesson but only a good read, and Schwarz’ lean but still lyrical prose delivered on that. Bonnie is more literary fiction than an action-packed crime novel, and it’s inevitable that once done, the reader might feel a little depressed. But the doomed criminals were who they were, came to a well-deserved end, and it’d be foolish to look for something uplifting here.

For a lifelong city-dweller in the northern midwest, the rural south and southwest can almost seem like a foreign country, particularly when dialing back decades to the Depression and Dustbowl eras. But Schwarz (through that careful research and lyrical wordsmithing) manages to bring it to life and just a few chapters in, you’ll find yourself fully immersed in this time and place and almost – almost, mind you – going along with Bonnie Parker and her long series of incredibly bad choices.

The robbers/kidnappers/murderers have been thoroughly romanticized on screen with Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, Holliday Grainger and Emile Hirsch as well as numerous other literary retellings. You can root for the antihero. Maybe even find yurself cheering for the villain. Until you can’t, that is. Because these were very very bad people, no matter how we want to picture them or how we might try to understand what led them down the paths they chose. Schwarz may not wallow in the heists and gunplay, but it’s still grim stuff, and the myth may be more relatable than the reality, even when it’s a moving read.

These Women.

these women

If you’re overwhelmed by the daily deluge of plagues, protests and politics, I’m not sure that Ivy Pochoda’s These Women (Ecco/HarperCollins 2020) is the book I’d recommend right now. But you should read it. In fact, I can think of no better way to do so than to grab it right after finishing any one of the zillion ‘thrillers’ crowding bookstore shelves with their cast of creepy serial killers abducting/torturing/murdering women in puzzlingly twisted voyeuristic descriptions.

I never got to see where These Women will be shelved at retail, having ordered the book ahead of time for a pickup. I suspect some stores will place it in Fiction & Literature while others will stick it in Mystery/Crime Fiction, where I’m sure the book will squirm in agony, flanked by a whodunit and a police procedural. These Women certainly deals with crime. A serial killer, in fact, and on all too familiar turf: contemporary Los Angeles. But Pochoda’s novel (more or less) ignores the culprit, the crimes and the chase to focus on several women, including former prostitute Feelea who survived the serial killer’s attack back in 1999, and Dorian, the grieving mother of the killer’s last of thirteen victims. There’s Julianna, AKA Jujubee, a strip club worker and hobby photographer, and performance artist Marella along with her aspirational mother Anneke, and finally, L.A. detective Essie Perry who uncovers disturbing details about the decades old unsolved serial killer case, and suspects the murderer may be at work once again. The women’s lives all intersect, Dorian being the cook at a fish shack frequented by streetwalkers, Essie the cop who’s saddled with Dorian’s reports that’s she’s being stalked, and so on.

In lesser hands – or at least, a writer with simpler ambitions – this cast of characters would hover on the sidelines while the reader spends way too much time inside the twisted mind of a creepy killer, periodically witnessing gruesome murders and cheering along while the detective overcomes bureaucratic interference and routine male coworker misogyny to finally take down the killer. But Pochoda’s not interested in telling yet another serial killer tale. She’s writing a book about the women impacted by brutal tragedy and living in violent horror on a daily basis. The killer, the crimes, the hunt…they’re almost incidental.

Stepping out of formulaic genre fiction comfort zones into the literary fiction arena can be daunting. Here, art supersedes narrative, so if a reader accustomed to straightforward plotting and a familiar balance of character vs. storytelling suddenly feels the author is merrily flipping them off, it’s no surprise. Art can be self-indulgent, and writerly cardinal sins that would be ruthlessly purged by agents and editors in more formulaic and genre projects are not only allowed here but encouraged. Now I’m not saying Pochoda’s flipping off book buyers! I’m only noting that hip-hopping between different times and multiple character POV’s while probing sense-of-place minutiae takes some getting used to. But it’s well worth the effort, in the case of Ivy Pochoda’s These Women.

Dodging And Burning

dodging & burning

John Copenhaver’s Dodging And Burning is subtitled “A Mystery”, and it is, though this is no ‘whodunit’, and as the complex story evolves, told from multiple points-of-view and in different times, no less, it becomes as much a who-done-what as a whodunit. Like most of my favorite mystery/crime fiction tales, this is less about the mystery and more about the characters themselves, the setting their tales unfold in, and the events that lure us into unexpected situations, almost indifferent to anything so simple as a crime being solved in the end. Because with the really great books, it’s about the journey, not the destination.

Reminiscent in part of novels as diverse as Peyton Place and To Kill A Mockingbird, Dodging And Burning begins as a coming of age tale in a small WWII-era town. At first it appears there’ll be a brutal crime to solve, but the small town setting starts to feel a bit like Twin Peaks as we start to have doubts about the nature of the crime…or if a crime occurred at all. In Copenhaver’s capable hands, that alone would’ve made for a wonderful novel. But he delivers something infinitely more complex, probing characters’ painful secrets and revealing the era’s exciting but dangerous underworld of hidden sexual identities that could never hope to survive in 1940’s small town USA. The novel’s conclusion is bittersweet – in the telling, but also in the reader’s realization that the book is over. The fact is, you’ll want more.

‘A Mystery’? Sure. But no locked rooms, no private dicks, cartoon femmes fatales or gunsels waving snub-noses around. Whether the author planned to write genre fiction that was ‘more’ or ignored genre conventions altogether and the publisher is responsible for that tagline on the book’s cover, who knows. But this is one one hell of good read, and I’ll keep my eyes open for whatever might come next from this writer. Like Dodging And Burning, I bet it’ll be a surprise.

 

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