An Unsuitable Job For A Woman.

P.D. James’ (1920 – 2014) first novel came out ten years before her An Unsuitable Job For A Woman (1972), which was, I think, her fifth book. In addition to several standalone works, James (Phyllis Dorothy James, The Baroness James of Holland Park, no less) published a popular series of fourteen mystery novels between 1962 and 2008 featuring Scotland Yard commander Adam Dalgliesh, and the London inspector even factored in An Unsuitable Job For A Woman, which introduced young London private investigator Cordelia Gray. 

The fact is, P.D. James’ Cordelia Gray is a more important character among literary detectives, cops and investigators than she’s sometimes given credit for, bridging a gap between the golden age of mystery’s largely genteel (and often British) female detectives, the handful of 50’s/60’s era women P.I.’s, cops and spies — most of whom resided in glib, period-sexy quickies – and the introduction of a fresh crop of long-lived, popular characters like Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone, Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Washawski and others in the early 1980’s. But back in 1972, Cordelia Gray was something else altogether: A pointedly unglamorous person with no exceptional superspy skills, sometimes troubled by very human self-doubt, but always bolstered by determination and persistence. 

In the first of only two Cordelia Gray novels, the fledgling 22-year old private detective suddenly assumes ownership of her former boss-then-mentor and business partner’s private detective agency after he’s committed suicide, recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. “Business” is a relative term, but Cordelia promptly acquires an unexpected out-of-town client. She’s tasked with investigating the apparent suicide of an otherwise healthy, handsome and well-liked college student (soon due for a generous inheritance, as well) who abruptly left school, hid out in a remote estate gardener’s shed, and was found dead, presumably having hung himself with his own belt. A telltale clue – traces of purple lipstick on his lips – leads Cordelia and the reader astray, certain that a woman was involved in the young man’s death. That’s cleared up once Cordelia learns he was actually found wearing that lipstick…along with a lacy black bra and panties. But even this is only one more crafty diversion in P.D. James’ mystery.

Hard-boiled or noir-ish, it’s not. An Unsuitable Job For A Woman isn’t a shoot-em-up or action-filled thriller. It’s a classic mystery British mystery novel freshened up for its time. Or, even a little ahead of its time. And more than merely ‘freshened up’. Cordelia’s stuck in a few fixes and there are some exciting scenes punctuating her relentless investigation (trapped in an abandoned and frighteningly deep well, just one harrowing example). The mystery’s resolution – and the very extended coda that follows – all satisfy and seem sure to have left readers craving more from Cordelia Gray. So, it’s surprising that James only wrote one more Cordelia Gray novel, and not till ten years later, at that: The Skull Beneath The Skin (1982). 

I originally read An Unsuitable Job For A Woman a long time ago. Honestly, it hadn’t been top of mind for ages, till I recently stumbled across a handsome trade pb and decided it was time for a re-read. Aside from the basic premise, I’d forgotten enough so that my re-read was more like a first-read. I’d also forgotten how very, very British the novel was, which isn’t a criticism, only an acknowledgment of what a provincial Midwesterner I must be.

Maybe Cordelia Gray didn’t enjoy the multi-book career she deserved. But she did live on, and more about that in another post…

Just Let Them Do The Talking.

If you’re an Elmore Leonard (10.11.25 – 8.20.2013) fan, which I am, you’ll want to visit Crime Reads for Dwyer Murphy’s excellent piece “How Elmore Leonard Really Wrote His Novels – According To His Characters” (link below).  Leonard was one of those incredibly prolific writers who built a loyal fan base of avid readers right alongside equally dedicated followers among writers who marveled at his streamlined and readable storytelling that always stripped away the superfluous. Everything superfluous. And did so with what seemed like effortless ease (which I’m certain it wasn’t). As Dwyer Murphy explains, Leonard named his characters and more or less told them to start talking, and that’s how the story unfolded. And it worked, by God, it really really worked.

Dwyer’s article is an interesting read in itself, and timely on Leonard’s birthday, but all the more so for the excellent links to previous Crime Reads articles on Elmore Leonard. Writer or reader, you’ll find them all worth a read, and below you’ll also find a link to a year-old post from right here about Leonard’s famous “rules for writers”.

https://thestilettogumshoe.com/2019/10/14/the-rules/

The “There” And The “Then”.

Not everyone re-reads novels, but I do, returning to a few classics and cherished favorites every few years, sometimes just grabbing a previously read book purely on a whim. But it’s rare for me to re-visit a book finished less than a year ago. Nonetheless, that’s just what I did with Laura Lippman’s 2019 Lady In The Lake, even though the to-be-read pile on the writing lair’s endtable is filling up (overflowing, actually) with new books waiting to be started.

Sure, I enjoyed Lippman’s tale of Baltimore’s mid-1960’s upper middle-class Jewish homemaker Madeline ‘Maddie’ Schwartz, her abrupt decision to leave her family for a new life in an edgy part of town, finagling her way into a bottom-rung newspaper job, and her ambitious and potentially dangerous investigation into the largely ignored death of Eunetta ‘Cleo’ Sherwood, a young African-American woman. Lady in The Lake is crime fiction. It’s definitely a mystery. But it’s also a coming-of-age story, though the age in this sorta-kinda homage to Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar is Maddie Schwartz’ late-thirties, her own teenage years’ self-discovery tabled for marriage and homemaker roles. 

Read the first time only months earlier, there were no new revelations to be discovered in the plot. And Lippman scores no better or worse than most writers do with the “there” – that is, immersing the reader in the place in which the story unfolds. I’ve never been to Baltimore, Maryland, and Lippman’s laundry list of stores, restaurants and street names didn’t conjure up any specific sense of place. That’s not a criticism. The fact is, having been raised on a century of Hollywood films and television shows, we all can recognize a handful of Los Angeles and New York street and neighborhood names and landmarks. But the main drags in Tulsa or Spokane? The upscale department store in Denver vs. the dime store chain in Minneapolis? The fancy dining spots in Pittsburgh and the greasy spoons in Cleveland? Of course not. 

For myself, I’ve chosen not to agonize over pointless geography lessons in my own writing, confident that no reader will spot check my rendition of Chicago (much less Chicago over 60 years ago) on Google Maps to uncover a fabricated street name or question if the Rexall drug store was really on the southwest or northeast corner of an intersection. The “there” – the real sense of place – has to be conveyed via much more than a tour guide’s itinierary.

But the “then”? 

Laura Lippman’s handling of the “then” in Lady of The Lake was masterfully done, and why I opted to revisit the novel, this time like a high school/college class reading assignment, taking careful note of the different ways she kept the reader firmly rooted in the Autumn of 1965 through November 1966 (with a brief coda some twenty years later). Just as a sense of place is established – and maintained – by much more than meaningless address lists, the elusive sense of “then” must first be conveyed (and then repeatedly but, hopefully, not intrusivelyreinforced) with much more than pointing out cars’ make and model years, household product brand names or some other pop culture references. In Lady In The Lake, everything really feels like it’s 1966, from the characters’ body language to the pervasive dismissiveness Maddie Schwartz constantly navigates through. Spiro T. Agnew may be running for governor, The Sandpipers playing at the theater, but those only matter if a contemporary reader even knows who Agnew was or can picture Steve McQueen on screen. Chronological cultural cues are sprinkled throughout, of course, but it’s the actions and dialog that constantly define the time, if not the place. How precisely Lippman accomplished all of this is not so easy to decipher.

My own work is set in the ethnic blue collar bungalow belt of 1959 Chicago. Neighborhood borders – and ethnic/racial boundaries – are as rigid and insurmountable as real walls, and a viaduct or railroad line as formidable as the Brandenburg Gate in Cold War era Berlin. I think I’ve managed a sense of place pretty well without getting bogged down in street names and local landmarks that couldn’t resonate with readers. But that doesn’t mean that all the maps, downloaded photos, vintage magazines and hours of research were pulled together for nothing. They’ve played their part in helping me to establish – and maintain – an essential sense of the “then” as much (if not more so) as the “there”. Am I doing it as handily as Laura Lippman? I doubt it. But a re-read of her Lady In The Lake is helping to keep me on the right track.

Photo: Andrey Dubinin

From Paused To Un-Pause.

I’ve been more or less on ‘pause’ with my own writing projects since late March. Specifically, the outreach/submission chores have been on hold, for good or bad, waiting till Labor Day before ‘un-pausing’.

Queries previously circulated for the completed The Stiletto Gumshoe novel (that’s actually not it’s title) while I continued work on its follow-up for a hoped-for mystery/crime fiction series. But with NYC the epicenter of all-things-bad back in the Spring, it seemed sensible to halt any further outreach. Considering the frustrating ratio of replies (even when they’re ‘thanks-but-no-thanks’) to so-called NORMANS (no reply means a no), why send things out to empty workstations and unopened inboxes? Offices had emptied out, folks were huddling in their homes and apartments, and we all had bigger things on our minds than genre fiction queries.

Things loosened up a little in some parts of the country (New York in particular) while we drifted into Summer, a time of year considered by many (though not all) as the publishing marketplace’s down-time. Though ‘real’ Summer’s still with us for another two weeks-plus, Labor Day’s the traditional end of the season, and I’m ready – even eager – to get going again. So, just to get back in the groove, I pulled the untouched-for-months manuscript out and gave it another once-over…what writer can forego making another tweak or two? 

As for the in-progress sequel? It hasn’t progressed as much as I’d like, not for lack of inspiration or due to writer’s block, but simply a matter of time. I never could’ve foreseen how the day job would change once everything went haywire back in late March: Staff working from home, me on-site, access to assets, info and more from Brazil, Germany, the UK and other faraway places all delayed. Bottom line: Everything takes half again longer than usual to complete. Mind you, there’ll be no whining here. I’m working. So many still are not. 

Writing, publishing and bookselling sites, blogs and the trade press provide a mixed bag of news and opinions on what’s-what in the marketplaces. The good news: Print unit sales have been up, by more than anyone foresaw, and the numbers seem to show some staying power. On the other hand, book production’s been disrupted, not only by pandemic related issues but supply-chain and other problems with the main book printing mega-companies. Still, new titles are coming out. Deals are being made. All eyes may be on the latest political tell-all hardcover right now, but we assume that’ll fade sometime soon. So, while pressing pause when the pandemic first swept over the country and everything initially shut down seemed prudent, lingering in neutral for too long can only lead to inertia. Time to get back to work.

Literary Agent Jessica Faust’s excellent Bookends Literary Agency blog (link below) recently posted “Keep Moving Forward”, recounting the ups and downs (mostly ups) of the scary days in the Spring, and offers, “My tip for my clients is the same as I gave my agents. Keep moving forward…Keep submitting, even if it’s summer or a pandemic or the world looks bleak. Keep moving forward and controlling the one thing you can control: What you’re doing.”  Makes sense to me. Whatever the ‘new normal’ is or will ultimately be, there’s no point sitting on the sidelines with a wait-n-see attitude. So next week I’ll reopen that buzzkill of a query/submission spreadsheet, revisit my continually-added-to literary agent lists, revise and refresh my queries and get back to work. 

Y’know, I’m getting revved up already.

Keep Moving Forward

Photos: Laura Chouette, Natalia Drepina, Janko Ferlic

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/

Maritta Wolff’s Night Shift

night shift

A month or so ago I commented on Whistle Stop, a 1946 Nero Films production that was part soap opera and part crime melodrama with a mismatched George Raft and very young Ava Gardner. Rife with steamy small-town adultery and intrigue, the film included just enough criminal mischief and shadowy scenes to qualify for the Movies! network’s Thursday and Sunday night film noir showcases (which, based on many of the flicks chosen, doesn’t take too much qualifying). But it wasn’t the movie that caught my attention as much as the source material: Maritta Wolff’s 1942 novel by the same name, her debut, and written while she was still in college, no less. That was enough to put me on the hunt, and though I’ll have to get my copy of Whistle Stop used and online (the local bookstore unable to deliver with the promised copy I ordered), I did get a new copy of her second novel Night Shift for a quick curbside pickup, and what an intriguing read it was.

During the early days of WWII in a small and unnamed midwestern city, Sally and her fellow boarding house neighbors are barely getting by on low paying waitress and war plant jobs. Christmas being right around the corner lends little cheer to their day to day routines of endless bus commutes, household chores, grisly factory accidents and handsy bosses. Suddenly the dreariness is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of Petey Braun, Sally’s sassy, stylish sister unseen for years, back from crisscrossing the country with ribald tales to tell and a purse full of dough just in time for the holidays. Petey promptly finagles a singing job at the local edge-of-town nightclub where gambling and women are on the menu in addition to the steaks and cocktails.

maritta wolff 1

Night Shift could be a handy desk reference for any writer looking to add authenticity to period settings, Wolff’s writing is spot-on for dialog and descriptions, particularly of the humdrum and uneventful minutiae of daily life. It’s a very different kind of writing from what readers may be accustomed to in contemporary fiction, particularly genre fiction, which tends to be ruthlessly purged of nonessentials by agents and editors eager to get to the action. The novel’s nearly 550 pages long, (though I still plowed through it in two evenings) and a hundred pages or more go by before smart-mouthed Petey whisks into town in a swirl of stylish frocks with a savvy nose for a buck, a man and a plush place to park herself for a while.

maritta wolff 3

A crime novel? Well, not exactly, and certainly not a mystery. Oh, there’s some action, a genuinely evil bad guy, some neither-completely-good nor completely-bad troubled souls, and even a nasty killing near the end, with most of the book taking place in settings and scenes right out of a postwar noir film. Maritta Wolff had a way with the underbelly of mid-twentieth century small town life. Though Night Shift is populated by no shortage of men – siblings, spouses, coworkers, lovers and would-be-Romeo’s alike – it’s a woman’s novel all the way through. Just because there are no big heists, car chases, shootouts or murders, as such, this is still a genuine noir, and in many ways more legitimately so for disregarding some of the genre’s clichés and obligatory plot tropes.

An upcoming post will take a look at how this novel was trimmed down for a pretty nifty Warner Brothers noir-melodrama-romance by Raoul Walsh and crew, with none other than Ida Lupino as brassy Petey Braun.

maritta wolff 2

Compare & Contrast.

dead girl blues

“Compare and contrast.” I heard that often enough in college art history classes when a huge screen lit up with slides of some old master painting paired side by side with an impressionist, abstract or expressionist work dealing with a similar subject. “Compare and contrast,” we were instructed to do, awkwardly standing up in a packed auditorium and, in my case, terrified that I’d butcher the artists’ names when forced to say them out loud.

Compare and contrast: I’d just tucked away my copy of Ivy Pochoda’s These Women, knowing what I was in for when I pre-ordered the book and still mulling it over days later when Lawrence Block’s 2020 Dead Girl Blues came in for a pickup. Pochoda’s novel might end up mis-shelved in the mystery or thriller section in some stores, but really it’s neither, instead being a much more harrowing look at the overlooked and ignored in an all-too-familiar setup – a serial killer preying on prostitutes in South Central L.A. Pochoda’s take on this, its literary structure and wordsmithing throw down a gauntlet to challenge countless contemporary thriller writers who celebrate violence, sexualized torture and death for entertainment, her novel zeroing in not on yet another psycho killer, the law enforcement chase or voyeuristic peeks at the victims’ suffering, but instead, on the victims’ friends, parents and even the neighborhood that was the scene of the crimes.

these women

Now I’ve sung Lawrence Block’s praises here before, being one of a select group of writers I revere and who could retype an old phone directory and still sell it to me. With a career that goes back to the 1950’s, there’s a mountain of Block work to digest, so I won’t claim to have read everything he’s done. Well…yet.

Compare and contrast: Pochoda’s These Women goes after the sometimes squirm-worthy serial killer/thriller conventions with a radically different voice, points-of-view and tone that defiantly challenge readers to rethink genre tropes…and more. So, what was Lawrence Block’s intent with Dead Girl Blues, clearly a very personal and eerily unsettling book that also defies many/most genre conventions, though in a very different way? Hey, don’t ask me. All I know is he wrote one hell of a disturbing book which, in its way (and an entirely different way) also insists that the reader rethink the often icky serial killer/murder/thriller conventions. I suppose it would take someone with Block’s resume to dare to put out this book. Sure, a trendy l’enfant terrible might disingenuously try it just to snag some short-lived buzz. But Lawrence Bock has nothing to prove and no need to court trendyville.

Don’t look for shoot-outs, car chases or fetishistic sexual violence-as-entertainment. I’m not sure anything is resolved when you reach the end of the last page, but you’ll be riveted from the opening, “A man walks into a bar”, and wrongly presume that you’ve been down this road before…maybe too many times.

Oh, but you haven’t.

Block’s about to take you somewhere you don’t expect to go, following the unassuming fellow beside you at the bar, next to you in the front seat of the car, behind the store counter, across the dinner table, maybe in bed with you. Hell, he could be your coworker, your boss, your neighbor or even your lover. He might be the James Thompson you think you know, or he might just be “Buddy”, and he’s done something very, very bad. Horribly, sickeningly bad. Maybe he’ll do it again. Maybe not.

There’s not a superfluous word to be found in this novel, the wordsmithing so crisp that Joe R. Lansdale called it “prose as lean as a starving model”. It’s a relatively short work that ought to have any mystery/crime fiction reader thoroughly riveted, but more so, should compel any avid reader of the oh-so-many bestselling sex-n-violence serial killer thrillers to pause and think about what they like to read – and why. Maybe that’s what Ivy Pochoda aimed to do with These Women. Maybe it’s what Block had in mind. Maybe not. But maybe it’s something we all need to ponder when we think about our reading and viewing choices.

Ivy Pochoda’s These Women. Lawrence Block’s Dead Girl Blues. Compare and contrast? I can’t, I suppose, other than having read them back-to-back. Two radically different works from two radically different writers, yet both challenge genre tropes and conventions in their own very powerful ways. So all I can say, is read these books…read them both.

www.lawrenceblock.com

The Vegas That Was.

Maximum Rossi

Two business trips to Las Vegas don’t qualify me as an expert gambler, only squandering some dough on the slots and not much more. Writer Paul W. Papa, on the other hand, knows his way around a casino, with books on vintage and even haunted Las Vegas to his credit. So if some portions of Papa’s novel Maximum Rossi (2020) occasionally read like a Las Vegas travelogue or gambling tutorial, a reader’s likely to forgive him. Papa’s fondness for “the Las Veags that was” bleeds through lovingly on every page of the novel.

This book was the prefect remedy for a diet of depressing current events titles and one dense literary novel. Maximum Rossi is a fun, fast read, harkening back to any number of 1950’s-60’s era PBO’s featuring private eyes, troublemakers, adventurers, men-about-town and shady anti-heroes mixed up with bad guys, mysteries and dangerous dames. Here Massimo ‘Max’ Rossi, son of a Boston mob fixer but not in the life himself, lingers in Las Vegas after a bachelor party and winds up deep in trouble with both the law and organized crime families after intervening to save a gangster’s mistress from a bruising. Noble? Yes. But certain to cause trouble. So when that same mobster is found murdered later that night, all fingers point to Max, and the race is on to solve the crime and somehow stay alive.

Flipping back through the book, I don’t see a specific year noted, but will place it comfortably in the mid to late 1950’s. A Ford Thunderbird tells me it could be no earlier than 1955, while Chicago mob chief Tony Accardo references suggest a 1957 (or thereabouts) cut-off. Whatever the year, it seems to be comfortably set in a pre-Rat Pack era that’s ripe with criminal fun.

Specialty press HPD Publishing’s cover art from Darned Good Covers (which I believe is a self-publishing and small press stock cover graphics resource) might be a little misleading. Oh, Vegas dancers and chorus girls waltz in and out of Max Rossi’s troubles (or may even be at the heart of them, and I’ll say no more than that), but you’ll find no saucy scenes intruding on the fistfights and gunplay here. Mind you, I’m quite fond of some sexy sizzle stirred in with the more sinister goings-on. Just as Maximum Rossi the novel fits in well with a 1950’s-60’s style of crime fiction, the book’s cover art maintains that era’s tradition of packaging paperbacks in saucy come-on covers that didn’t always match the stories inside.

It looks like Max Rossi’s Vegas adventures will continue in a sequel, Rossi’s Gamble, due out later this summer (the book included a teaser for that new novel), and I’ll be buying it. You should too. If you get a kick out of what you browse through here with The Stiletto Gumshoe, you’re bound to get a kick out of Paul W. Papa’s Max Rossi.

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.

Fast-Paced And Fun…But Is It A Novel?

snakes

A few days have passed since I finished Brian DePalma and Susan Lehman’s Are Snakes Necessary?  (Hard Case Crime, 2020), but I’m still trying to decide if I enjoyed it or (if this is possible) actually hated it. Since I blew through the book in a couple evenings, I’ll have to concede that it was a fast and fun read. But that concession doesn’t mean there wasn’t something about this novel that still bothers me.

Not really a mystery and only fitting ‘crime fiction’ if you set very broad genre parameters, Are Snakes Necessary? is a somewhat neo-noirish thriller of sorts, rolling out a seemingly unrelated cast of largely unsavory characters whose stories will intertwine through a series of sometimes logical and sometimes implausible coincidences. A sleazy political consultant hires a desperate fast food worker to set up an incumbent Senator with photos of a hotel room tryst. A failed photojournalist hooks up with a Las Vegas casino maven’s trophy wife. A flight attendant is horrified to learn her ambitious daughter has not only dropped out of college to join a political campaign but is joining the candidate (her own one-time lover) in bed as well. Throw in a retiring advice columnist, the Senator’s dying spouse and an abused Philadelphia housewife, and still everything will manage to come full circle as these characters’ stories converge in the novel’s closing mini-chapters, with multiple people dying (not always the ones who deserve it), some in Hitchcock-homage fashion (no surprise there, with DePalma at work).

In describing his writing style, Elmore Leonard famously said “I try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip”. Apparently, DePalma and Lehman took this advice seriously, but maybe a bit too much, and that’s what troubled me about Are Snakes Necessary? Oh, it’s an entertaining ‘page turner’. But is it really a novel? Frankly, I’m not sure.

The fact is, the book reads more like a story treatment, elaborate synopsis or an unproduced DePalma screenplay fleshed out into book form by Lehman. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, only that I’m pretty sure that if an unknown submitted this to an agent or editor, they’d be told to come back once they’d actually written the novel.

All that said, don’t be turned off by my own mixed feelings. The Hard Case Crime series rarely has a miss, even if it occasionally strays from its original mission of publishing long forgotten mysteries and hard-boiled crime fiction from the postwar paperback originals heyday and seems all too ready to go to press when there’s a well-known name with some marquee value to put on the cover (an understandable business decision). So, if you’d like a quick, entertaining read peopled by mostly unpleasant but-no-less intriguing characters, Are Snakes Necessary? will definitely keep you occupied for an evening or two. Arrange a curbside pickup from your local indie like I did, and see what you think. Is it a fast-paced plot-driven novel thoroughly purged of indulgent writerly fluff? Or is it an old screenplay dusted off by DePalma and finessed into something like a novel by Lehman?

Either way, it still is a fun read.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑