“Not This Time!”: Barbara Neely, Blanche on the Lam


Men like Nate and women like her were the people, the folks, the mud from which the rest were made. It was their hands and blood and sweat that had built everything, from the North Carolina governor’s mansion to the first stoplight. They ought to have been appreciated for being the wattle that held the walls together. Instead, they were expendable, interchangeable, rarely missed, hardly regarded, easily forgotten. Not this time!

Barbara Neely’s Blanche on the Lam (first published in 1992) is the first of four novels she wrote featuring Blanche White, professional cleaning woman and amateur detective. The series was out of print the last time I taught ‘Women and Detective Fiction’ so although I was aware of its significance in the history of African American crime writing, I didn’t pursue it very far. Now that the books are available again, I thought I should check it out, and I’m glad I did: I think (logistics permitting) I will put Blanche on the Lam on the syllabus. It’s a brisk, entertaining read that is also sharp and self-conscious about the difference race makes to all aspects of the mystery genre, from the literal risks to black Americans in any kind of encounter with the police, to more abstract thematic questions about authority, evidence, and justice.

Blanche begins the novel in trouble for passing bad checks; the judge doesn’t care that she would have been able to cover them if her (white) employers hadn’t gone out of town without paying her on time. Right away, then, both race and class are highlighted. Amidst a disruption at the courthouse, Blanche escapes from custody, and then she takes advantage of the fact that “women like her” are indistinguishable to the wealthy white families they work for to slip into a housekeeping job that takes her–safely, she thinks–out of town for a while. It turns out, however, that she’s traveling right into more trouble, and eventually into real danger. From the start she doesn’t trust her employers, Grace and Everett, especially Everett:

Blanche on the Lam.2

He was a rich white male. Being in possession of that particular set of characteristics meant a person could do pretty much anything he wanted to do, to pretty much anybody he chose–like an untrained dog chewing and shitting all over the place. Blanche was sure having all that power made many men crazy.

As Blanche tries to figure out what is going on with these two, and with drunken Aunt Emmeline, who is confined to her upstairs bedroom, she learns more about the family from their long-time retainer Nate, who tells her stories about, among other things, how as a child Grace saved him from a roving band of KKK thugs. Although she’s upset at the first suspicious death in the novel, it’s Nate’s subsequent death that makes her particularly determined to bring the murderer to account.

Blanche also befriends and bonds with Grace’s cousin Mumsfield, a young man with Down Syndrome. I expect that his characterization and role will provoke some discussion. For Blanche, the key to their relationship is that neither of them is regarded as fully human by Grace and Everett–or, really, any of the white adults in the story. “She understood,” she thinks, that his condition

made him as recognizably different from the people who ran and owned the world as she. It was this similarity that made him visible to her inner eye and eligible for her concern.


Crucially, in terms of the unfolding mystery, nobody really listens to Mumsfield, and Blanche eventually realizes that she too has not really been paying attention to him even though he has been dropping clues for some time–without himself quite understanding what has actually happened. Blanche feels affection for him and protective of him, but she also wonders how far her identification with him can really go: “For all his specialness and their seeming connectedness, Mumsfield was still a white man.” She is wary of accepting a “mammy” role, serving as a caretaker for someone “whose ancestors had most likely bought and sold her ancestors as though they were shoes or machines.”

I already see a number of ways Blanche on the Lam will connect with–and make us look differently at–other books we’ll probably be reading. For instance, Blanche’s work as a detective has some interesting continuities with Miss Marple, who in her investigations relies on the ways people underestimate her, and on the invisibility that comes with her age. In a similar way, Blanche takes advantage of the access she gets to people’s private spaces and conversations because her race and role in the household make her unimportant to them. Being seen as “the help” is a specific kind of anonymity, insulting to her personally but also a tool she can use, as is the cheerful subservience she puts on as a mask when dealing with racism and snobbery. They both also know their way around a kitchen, and in both cases this “feminine” domesticity can be useful, though at the same time there are important differences in the ways that it defines their identities. The novel is told in close third person: I think it might have been even better in first person, but we get a lot of Blanche’s inner commentary on people and events and her voice still comes across very clearly. Although in this novel they are of necessity at a distance, because she’s in hiding, Blanche’s family and close friends are also important in establishing her character, and another point of connection to Miss Marple is the extent to which “gossip” or intimate storytelling among women is a vital element of the case.

Like other crime writers who emphasize social justice (such as, in this course, Sara Paretsky) Neely is also clear that the resolution of the specific case has done little if anything to fix the larger problems it has highlighted. At the end of the novel Blanche is moving from North Carolina to Boston, but not with any hope that it will be a safe space for her. “It seemed,” she reflects, “that enemy territory was all there was in this country for someone who looked like her.” The satisfaction she finds is individual, not systemic. “She would always be a woman who’d come too close to murder,” she thinks, but

she would also always be a woman who’d fought for her life and won. That woman, no matter how much she’d changed, was still capable of negotiating enemy territory–even without a reference from her most recent employer.

Dolls and Dames: Vera Caspary, Laura

laura-feminist-pressSeating himself in the long chair, his thin hands gripping the arms, he seemed to relax watchfulness. Tired, I thought, and noticed the hint of purple in the shadows of the deep-set eyes, the tension of flesh across narrow cheekbones. Then, quickly, hailing into my mind the scarlet caution signal, I banished quick and foolish tenderness. Dolls and dames, I said to myself; we’re all dolls and dames to him.

I learned from A. B. Emrys’s afterword to the Feminist Press edition of Laura that Vera Caspary deliberately applied “the Wilkie Collins” method to her novel: her use of multiple narrators was inspired by The Woman in White in particular (although elsewhere Emrys makes the case that The Moonstone was also an influence), and her “fastidious, fascinating, and fat villain” is based at least in part on Count Fosco. Knowing this doesn’t make Laura better or more fun to read, of course: it just confirms that my taste is consistent, because I love The Woman in White and I also loved Laura.

I read Laura sort of in case it was a good fit for Women and Detective Fiction but more because I would like to switch out The Maltese Falcon in Pulp Fiction. I had resolved to assign In a Lonely Place, but when I started rereading it and was reminded just what a creepy experience it is to be immersed in the point of view of a serial rapist and murderer, I reconsidered: that’s a lot to put on first-year students, and after all, I wasn’t entirely convinced myself when I read it before that it succeeds in exposing misogyny rather than wallowing in it. At this point I am thinking of putting Hughes’s novel on the syllabus for Women and Detective Fiction, which is a 4th-year seminar populated by students who I think will be better prepared to have that interpretive debate themselves. Laura, however, just might do for Pulp Fiction–though I have yet to find out if our bookstore can get it in sufficient quantities (all of our first-year classes next year are capped at 120, which I find both distressing and daunting).

laura-popular-coverLaura would pose some pedagogical problems of its own, not because it’s creepy (though it is deliciously twisty) but because its first narrator, Waldo Lydecker, is completely insufferable. I actually didn’t know when I began the novel that it would have multiple narrators and I wasn’t sure I was up for 200 pages of his self-conscious pomposity. “I am given,” he tells us,

to thinking of myself in the third person. Many a time, when I have suffered some clumsy misadventure, I am saved from remorse by the substitution for unsavory memory of another captivating installment in The Life and Times of Waldo Lydecker. Rare are the nights when I fail to lull myself to sleep without the sedative of some such heroic statement as “Waldo Lydecker stood, untroubled, at the edge of a cliff beneath which ten thousand angry lions roared.”

Will the students be able to find him funny as well as pathetic and irritating? Of course, once Laura’s story has fully unfolded there are also plenty of clues to the mystery in the way he talks: the trick of teaching the novel, as with teaching The Moonstone (which, after all, opens with a couple hundred pages of Betteredge being stuffy), would be to make sure we have prepared for it by talking about dramatic monologues and the ways people reveal themselves through their language. If, as I am currently contemplating, we read True Grit rather than Valdez Is Coming as our sample Western, we will have practiced that at length with Mattie.

laura-pulp-coverIn addition to the clever plot and the pleasures of the multiple narrators, Laura seems to me particularly interesting for (no surprise!) Laura herself, and for the way the other characters attempt to fix her identity in a way that accords with their assumptions about women. Hard-boiled or noir fiction famously tends to limit women to specific roles: victim, dame, femme fatale. Caspary and Laura are both aware of the way women get cast into roles that restrict their individuality and define them in relation to men; Laura’s resistance to this is one of the factors that puts her life in danger. “You are not dead,” another character says to her at one point; “you are a violent, living, bloodthirsty woman.” How much of that sentence is true? It depends, quite literally, on whose story you accept.

Laura is also self-conscious about the conventions of detective novels. Waldo hates them:

I still consider the conventional mystery story an excess of sound and fury, signifying, far worse than nothing, a barbaric need for violence and revenge in that timid horde known as the reading public. The literature of murder investigation bores me as profoundly as its practice irritated Mark McPherson [Laura‘s detective].

“I offer the narrative,” he goes on, “not so much as a detective yarn as a love story”–another clue, though we might think, by the time we finish Laura, that he draws too fine a distinction–and that Caspary is nudging us to think about the ways stories of “violence and revenge” are usually gendered. “In detective stories,” Laura herself remarks, “there are two kinds [of detectives],

the hardboiled ones who are always drunk and talk out of the corners of their mouths and do it all by instinct; and the cold, dry, scientific kind who split hairs under a microscope. . . . Detectives aren’t heroes to me, they’re detestable.

Is Mark McPherson the hero of Laura? Again, it depends on which version of the story you accept, or on what you think actually does constitute heroism.

There’s a lot going on in Laura that I think would be fun and productive to work through. It certainly has as much literary flair as anything I’ve read by Hammett or Chandler, and it pulls off its tricks without glamorizing violence (as Hammett especially often seems to) and with a woman at its center who is herself, not just an object for male fantasy. I think it’s the first noir novel (Emrys calls it “new woman noir”) I’ve ever straight up enjoyed reading. Cross your fingers that it turns out to be an option for my class!

Refreshing My Reading Lists II: Women and Detective Fiction

the-secret-of-the-old-clockIn my last post I went over my plans for refreshing the reading lists for my regular courses on the 19th-century novel. I have now set up a shelf for these books and begun requesting exam copies for those I don’t already have. Next up is the reading list for my upper-level seminar ‘Women and Detective Fiction,’ which I’ll be offering next fall for the first time since 2014. Here is the book list from that iteration of the course:

Agatha Christie, Miss Marple: The Complete Short Stories (selections)
Carolyn Keene, Nancy Drew: The Secret of the Old Clock
Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night
P. D. James, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman
Sue Grafton, A is for Alibi
Sara Paretsky, Indemnity Only
Katherine V. Forrest, Death at the Nightwood Bar
DVD: LaPlante/Mirren, Prime Suspect I

We also read a sampler of stories: “The Purloined Letter,” “A Scandal in Bohemia,” and Hammett’s “The House on Turk Street” (as touchstones for the tropes and traditions of the genre), and Mary Wilkins Freeman’s “The Long Arm,” and Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers.” I have not taught this particular seminar often and there has not been a lot of variation in the reading list, but in earlier versions I included Murder at the Vicarage instead of the short stories for Christie, and I used to assign Amanda Cross’s Death in a Tenured Position until it went out of print, while Death at the Nightwood Bar was a new addition to the course in 2014.

neely-blancheTo date, the books I’ve chosen for this seminar have all been by women writers, about women detectives, and explicitly interested in gender and detection. They all, that is, bring a lot of self-consciousness to their engagement with detective fiction as a genre. Collectively, they also cover a good range of subgenres or types of detective fiction. While in these respects the list has reasonable breadth, however, in other respects it is quite narrow;  the feminist tradition it covers is, to put it mildly, not very intersectional. I put in some time in the past trying to fix this problem; though I came up short, the good news is that I do, as a result, already have a preliminary list of names to start with, particularly of African American authors: among these are Barbara Neely (whose books were out of print the last time I looked but appear to be available again), Eleanor Taylor Bland, Paula L. Woods, Grace F. Edwards, Frankie Y. Bailey, Valerie Wilson Wesley, and Attica Locke, whose The Cutting Season looks especially promising because its historical angle is something the books on my usual list don’t include. I basically haven’t read any books by these authors, so if anyone has tips about where to start with them or other ideas about good candidates for my seminar that would help me make the reading list more diverse, I’d be grateful.

the-breakSo far I have never assigned a Canadian writer in either of my detective fiction classes, primarily because I haven’t found one that takes the genre in what seems like a new direction or that really made me sit up and take notice. (Phonse Jessome’s Disposable Souls came close and might yet end up on the list for the survey course, both because it’s good and because the local angle would be interesting to take on.) For  Women and Detective Fiction, I am very tempted to include Katherena Vermette’s The Break this time, even though it may or may not be genre fiction–it would be a good opportunity to discuss how or why we use that label anyway. The Break would differ from my usual reading list in that it does not follow a woman detective, though it is definitely about women and crime (and if that focus was enough to put a book on the reading list, it would open the door to Dorothy B. Hughes’s In a Lonely Place, an intriguing possibility). A recent article in Quill  & Quire also gave me a starter list of Indigenous mystery writers, including Mardi Oakley Medewar, Sara Sue Hoklotubbe, and Alison Whitaker–more authors whose work will be new to me.

cutting-seasonOne of the problems I ran into last time I went down this road was getting my hands on samples from the authors I was interested in. I probably just need to be more persistent and order a lot of titles through interlibrary loan. The other problem is that I’m not really a voracious or enthusiastic reader of mysteries (odd, I know, in the circumstances) so I tire easily of the necessary exploratory work and I can take a while to warm to books that are not immediately appealing to me (though I can eventually get there, as has happened with Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress–still not a personal favorite, but one I have found very satisfying to teach). This is why I need help sifting through or coming up with good options so that I can make this reading list represent a wider range of voices. Ideas and recommendations would be very welcome.

Postscript: Dorian sent me a link to this excellent round-table discussion on diversity in detective fiction from Writer’s Digest, which might be of interest to others.

P. D. James, Death Comes for the Archdeacon

That’s not actually the title of any of P. D. James’s novels, of course: it’s the basic plot of Death in Holy Orders, which I just finished rereading for the first time in a decade or more. Coincidentally, when I picked it more or less randomly out to revisit, I had also just reread Trollope’s The Warden, and so I had rigidly self-righteous Archdeacons on the brain even before James’s Archdeacon Crampton met his bloody end–then James herself made the Trollope connection explicit by having one of her characters read aloud from Barchester Towers with the deliberate intent of “discomforting the Archdeacon.”

The passage he reads is from the novel’s first chapter, in which the gentle and unworldly Bishop (known to us from The Warden as Mr. Harding’s great friend) is on his deathbed. “Nothing could be easier,” Trollope’s narrator assures us, “than the old man’s passage from this world to the next.” Things are more complicated, however, for his ambitious son, Archdeacon Grantly:

By no means easy were the emotions of him who sat there watching. He knew it must be now or never. He was already over fifty, and there was little chance that his friends who were now leaving office would soon return to it. No probable British prime minister but he who was now in, he who was so soon to be out, would think of making a bishop of Dr. Grantly. Thus he thought long and sadly, in deep silence, and then gazed at that still living face, and then at last dared to ask himself whether he really longed for his father’s death.

The effort was a salutary one, and the question was answered in a moment. The proud, wishful, worldly man sank on his knees by the bedside and, taking the bishop’s hand within his own, prayed eagerly that his sins might be forgiven him.

It is, as the provocateur who reads it aloud remarks, “one of the most impressive chapters Trollope ever wrote,” full of pathos, moral tension, and psychological insight. Our disgust at the Archdeacon’s selfishness is quickly countered by his own rueful self-knowledge and sincere penitence–and by Trollope’s explicit rebuttal of those who think he was “wicked to grieve for the loss of episcopal power, wicked to have coveted it, nay, wicked even to have thought about it, in the way and at the moments he had done so.” Ambition is natural in any profession, Trollope notes, and we “can hardly hope to raise the character of the pastor by denying to him the right to entertain the aspirations of a man.”

He rose with even greater vehemence to Archdeacon Grantly’s defense at the end of The Warden, a defense not against imagined external critics but against his own authorial choices:

We fear that he is represented in these pages as being worse than he is; but we have had to do with his foibles, and not with his virtues. We have seen only the weak side of the man, and have lacked the opportunity of bringing him forward on his strong ground. . . . On the whole, the Archdeacon of Barchester is a man doing more good than harm,—a man to be furthered and supported, though perhaps also to be controlled; and it is matter of regret to us that the course of our narrative has required that we should see more of his weakness than his strength.

Trollope typically resists absolutes of either virtue or vice–and that is one reason murder of the particularly calculated and brutal kind that takes place in Death in Holy Orders is so unimaginable in his world. Its cruelty and its finality obliterate ethical ambiguity; such an act disallows the nuance that is Trollope’s moral stock-in-trade.

That said, James and Trollope  do have a lot in common. James herself points to Austen, Eliot, and Trollope, rather than the Gothic or sensation novelists, as her chief fictional influences, and you see it in her patient, probing characterization as well as her meticulous attention to setting. Reading Death in Holy Orders so soon after The Warden I was struck by their shared interest in the Anglican Church as an institution defined both by its corporate identity and by the characters of the individual men who embody it, with their ideals and their faith but also their ambition, greed, and vanity. Both novels also depict the Church as an institution in which continuity and tradition are under constant pressure from changes without and within, and in which the laudable aim of preserving what is good can too easily be twisted into a justification for tolerating what is bad.

In both books, too, it is the self-righteous Archdeacon who epitomizes many of the worst tendencies of the priesthood they belong to, including self-righteousness, arrogance, and a preoccupation with worldly practicalities. While Trollope, as shown, wraps Archdeacon Grantly in the protective padding of his own humane understanding, James and her characters show no such forgiveness towards Archdeacon Crampton, who is universally hated. This is a formal necessity in a murder mystery, to be sure: more than one person must have a sufficient motive to be a plausible suspect, or where’s the puzzle? But it’s the specifics that are thematically revealing–and that turn out, in James’s case, to be a bit disturbing.

If Crampton, like Dr. Grantly, were “a fitting impersonation of the church militant here on earth,” a rigid defender of the status quo, the dislike both Archdeacons provoke could be neatly interpreted (as I think it can be, in Trollope’s case) as a call for the Church to reform, to live up to its professed spiritual ideals rather than insisting indignantly on its worldly authority and privilege. Instead, however, it turns out that one of the main reasons Crampton is disliked is that he was overzealous (as the other characters see it) in prosecuting a priest, Father John, accused of sexually molesting young boys. “The offences had been more a question of inappropriate fondling and caresses than of serious sexual abuse,” reflects Father Martin, another of the priests at the Seminary where Father John now resides, and the punishment might have been light if Crampton hadn’t “busied himself in finding additional evidence,” as a result of which Father John ended up serving time in jail. Father Martin considers Crampton’s pursuit of Father John “inexplicable”: “there was something irrational about the whole business.”

Everyone at the Seminary is sympathetic towards Father John, who seems as kind and unworldly as Trollope’s aged Bishop. If their tolerance were shown as priests closing ranks to protect one of their own, or the Church more generally, from damaging exposure, that would be one thing: then, again, a critical inference could be drawn–especially if solving the murder required them eventually to confront and regret their defense of a convicted pedophile, however otherwise likable he might be. Alternatively, I suppose, Father John’s case could have been used as an explicit model of sin, penance, and forgiveness: he has done his time, and if he were remorseful it could be worth exploring how or whether he was entitled to regain his standing in the Church. Unfortunately, though, the novel overall offers nothing to counter Father Martin’s perspective that Father John has been hard done by: that he has been punished with undue severity for a little harmless “fondling” of choir boys. It’s not just his fellow priests but also Emma Lavenham, English professor and emergent love interest for Commander Dalgliesh, who treats him with indulgent kindness; Dalgliesh himself, James’s moral avatar, expresses more concern about Father John’s trial and imprisonment (“which must,” he reflects, “have been an appallingly traumatic experience”) than he does about the priest’s young victims, whose trauma goes unacknowledged by anyone. Apparently it’s not that the Church needs to be held accountable for enabling and sheltering Father John but that his accusers, the Archdeacon among them, by making much ado about almost nothing, should be ashamed for blighting a good man’s life.

Death in Holy Orders does not ultimately turn on Father John’s history with the Archdeacon; his backstory is not central to the murder investigation but simply adds another (supposedly) unpleasant dimension to what we know about the murder victim. I suppose that could be an argument for not paying too much attention to it, except that the more I think about it, the more creepy that makes its treatment. It’s hard not to conclude that James herself considers accusations of that sort incidental–a lot of unnecessary and damaging fuss in a world, and a Church, with bigger problems. Surely, though, her reforming Archdeacon deserved at least as vigorous a defense as Trollope’s: that James allows Crampton to die cruelly and unmourned puts James out of step with the literary lineage she claimed.

Missing Persons: Arnaldur Indriðason, Arctic Chill

Erlendur stood over the grave in the freezing cold, searching for a purpose to the whole business of life and death. As usual he could find no answers. There were no final answers to explain the life-long solitude of the person in the urn, or the death of his brother all those years ago, or why Erlendur was the way he was, and why Elías was stabbed to death. Life was a random mass of unforeseeable coincidences that governed men’s fates like a storm that strikes without warning, causing injury and death.

I read two of Arnaldur Indriðason’s novels a couple of years ago. Both were pretty depressing; of the two, Silence of the Grave was both bleaker and better. After that I said I needed a break from “grim nordic noir” for a while, and I don’t think I’ve read any since (except The Terrorists for class, which isn’t actually that grim in spirit, despite the severity of its social criticism). After I finished Arctic Chill yesterday, I felt, again, that I’d had enough for a while: it is even more relentlessly unhappy than I remember the other two being, in ways that are pretty well summed up by the quotation above.

Arctic Chill struck me as more perfunctory, as a crime novel, than Silence of the Grave: it doesn’t try to do as much that is interesting or meaningful or literary. It does focus on an important topic: the victim’s mother is an immigrant to Iceland from Thailand, and his death immediately raises questions for the police, and for the media, about whether it was motivated by racism or hostility to immigrants. During their investigation, Erlendur and his team turn up plenty of both attitudes, sometimes casual, sometimes virulent, and thus the novel joins other recent European crime fiction (including Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers and Ian Rankin’s Fleshmarket Close) in examining the tensions and prejudices stirred up by changing demographics in supposedly “liberal” societies.

Though the particulars of the case were reasonably well developed, in the end I didn’t think Indriðason did much of interest with either the form of the novel or the resolution of the case: the crime does not ultimately reveal anything in particular about racism or immigration, for instance, instead turning more or less on random chance and pointless hooliganism. On the other hand, that outcome is consistent with Erlendur’s conviction that life has no meaningful patterns. There are some other thematic threads that add unity to the novel, too, particularly the recurrence of missing people, including  Elías’s older brother, the woman at the center of Erlendur’s other case, and, in the past, Erlendur’s brother, who was lost in blizzard in their childhood. His body was never found, and throughout Arctic Chill Erlendur is haunted by memories and questions about this personal tragedy which has defined the rest of his life in terms of loss and remorse.

I’m never tempted by mystery series that have what strikes me as an unduly cheery aspect: the ones that come with brownie recipes or crossword puzzles or starring cats or dogs. Crime is a serious business, or should be. It hardly makes sense, then, for me to complain that Indriðason takes it too seriously. I think what I want is more of a payoff for the misery: if not a glimmer of hope that life can be more than random “injury or death,” at least more layers to the characters or the social commentary. Arctic Chill just seemed formulaically gloomy.

No Escape: Dorothy B. Hughes, In A Lonely Place

Brub said, “I won’t say that. Although I honestly don’t think he ever does escape. He has to live with himself. He’s caught there in that lonely place. And when he sees he can’t get away–” Brub shrugged. “Maybe suicide, or the nut house–I don’t know. But I don’t think there’s any escape.”

I was glad that the Afterword in the Feminist Press edition of Dorothy B. Hughes’s In A Lonely Place got right to the heart of the problem: “What feminist claims can be made for a novel that is narrated from the perspective of a serial rapist and killer of women?” I had been puzzling over this as I read the book, and my own initial answer was simpler than the one Lisa Maria Hogeland makes in her essay (though similar to it), and also less confident: the novel is told from that perspective, but it is never aligned with it, so we never make the mistake of rooting for Dix Steele. To a limited extent we understand him, perhaps, but unlike in morally much riskier and more complicated fiction (such as Adam Johnson’s disturbing and heartbreaking story “Dark Meadows”) we never sympathize with him. This point I’m pretty confident about–what I’m less sure about is whether that’s enough to make the novel in any sense a feminist one.

Hogeland’s argument (oversimplified) is that the result is a novel that is a powerful indictment of toxic masculinity, one that exposes the fundamental irrationality and violence of patriarchy as a system. Dix may be an extreme case, but, Hogeland rightly points out, over and over in the novel his normalcy is highlighted–the point is made repeatedly that the murderer looks ordinary, indistinguishable from other men. The strategy of showing that even “good” men belong to and benefit from an evil system is an old feminist one, and I think that’s a reasonably persuasive reading of the way Dix is characterized. It’s also true that the novel effectively prevents any shadow of blame from attaching to any of his victims, and, furthermore, that it mostly avoids sensationalizing their suffering and death.

Though I don’t dispute Hogeland’s interpretation, I did notice that she seems aware she’s working a bit hard to make the case. She attributes the challenge to Hughes’s subtlety: for instance,

Love, jealousy, and the need to stalk and kill are all knitted together here, and Hughes’s skill is that she does it so subtly, in a way that never flags it overtly as a critique, yet critique it is. Hughes takes us inside Dix’s misogyny in order to explicate how that misogyny is the very foundation of his heterosexual masculinity, and in order to critique the misogyny she depicts.

 I said my answer to the “but how can this be feminist?” question wasn’t as confident as hers, and I think this is why: at least for me, on my first reading, In A Lonely Place seemed like a book we could interpret in that way, but also as one that could reasonably be experienced very differently–not as a celebration of violent misogyny (because it doesn’t take long for us to be perfectly clear that Dix is a dreadful, terrifying specimen), but as entertainment based (in a fairly familiar way) on violent misogyny. A lot of its suspense is built around the possibility of his next crime, for instance; every woman we meet we fear is a potential victim; there is the usual cat-and-mouse excitement around who knows what and when, or if, he will be caught. There are not, in fact, across the novel, any other men clearly placed on the spectrum of male aggression: sticking so closely and cleverly to his perspective ultimately makes it hard to see him as anything but exceptional, a lone wolf rather than a representative of systemic oppression.

Of course, that’s the artistic tightrope of unreliable narrators–which Dix very nearly is, so close is Hughes’s third-person point of view–as well as of any attempt to render the point of view of someone morally objectionable. I wonder if I would find the “it’s a cleverly disguised critique of itself” argument more overwhelmingly convincing if in fact Dix were the narrator, though I suppose that might only collapse even further the distinction between his twisted psyche and the social systems he works within. But (as I often argue about unreliable narrators, such as Stevens in The Remains of the Day, or for that matter much more blunt instruments such as any of Poe’s macabre personae) the success of unreliable narration depends on gradually developing an alternative version of the story that becomes every bit as clear as the one we are being overtly told: a unmistakable gap opens between the narrator’s theory of the facts and ours. I’m not saying there isn’t a gap between Dix’s story and ours, but are the alternatives as sophisticated as Hogeland suggests? Maybe it’s just because I’m new to In A Lonely Place (and because I also focus on critiques of masculinity when I read and teach other hard-boiled fiction, such as The Maltese Falcon) that it didn’t seem to up-end noir or hard-boiled conventions as much as all that.

Whether or not it’s a “feminist” novel, it’s definitely a stylish thriller, meaning not just the plot and but also the prose:

Fear wasn’t a jagged split of light cleaving you; fear wasn’t a cold fist in your entrails; fear wasn’t something you could face and demolish with your arrogance. Fear was the fog, creeping about you, winding its tendrils about you, seeping into your pores and flesh and bone. Fear was a girl whispering a word over and again, a small word you refused to hear although the whisper was a scream in your ears, a dreadful scream you could never forget. You heard it over and again and the fog was a ripe red veil you could not tear away from your eyes.

That’s good stuff, and chilling–and also, maybe, both taking and giving a bit too much pleasure in that poor girl’s terror.

Nomad: Phonse Jessome, Disposable Souls

disposablesoulsPhonse Jessome’s grim, violent crime novel Disposable Souls is set in the city where I live, and in a city I’ve never seen. Reading it was a constant reminder of the point Ian Rankin has often made about his Edinburgh-set novels: they show a side of Edinburgh that tourists never see — and neither do most residents, even though it is around them every day. The physical landscape is the same, but the shadow city of his crime stories has a different population and runs on different rules. Similarly, the Halifax depicted in Disposable Souls has the same geography as my Halifax, but it’s not at all the same place.

Of course, the reality is that these two cities are one city: I am just, in my own everyday life, ignorant of and sheltered from the one Jessome describes, so much so that even his vivid commentaries on very familiar places were disorienting. His description of downtown’s Spring Garden Road highlights just this duality:

In the bright sunshine of the day, the sidewalks on both sides of the road are crammed with beautiful people buying beautiful things. Trendy office workers lug six-dollar lattes past panhandlers who stand invisible at the curb, empty cups in hand. The homeless sit huddled against fire hydrants and utility poles. Halifax doesn’t have a trendy Main Street or a Skid Row. Spring Garden is a little of both.

At night, the tide shifts, and Spring Garden is taken over by angry, young rich kids in torn jeans and baggy black hoodies. They scowl and bluster at anyone who walks past and then tweet about it on seven-hundred-dollar phones. The real thugs roll past in Escalades, looking for someone to shoot. Even they wouldn’t waste real lead on wannabe hoods.

sgrFor readers who don’t know Halifax at all, Jessome provides not just vivid description but a lot of context about the city’s history. That it never feels like info-dumping is because much of it is provided by his protagonist, Detective Constable Cam Neville, a former army sniper and escaped POW, who in his new role as a cop struggles to overcome both PTSD and his past as a member of the biker’s club Satan’s Stallions. Cam views his home town with merciless clarity and an unhealthy dose of cynicism. “Halifax is a navy town,” he explains;

A military moron named Cornwallis was the first to claim it. He started his career as a bedchamber servant for King Edward over in England. He managed to sneak out of the royal bedroom long enough to slaughter hordes of unarmed Scots. The blood lust impressed the King who, although reluctant to lose a man good with a bedpan, realized he had a new bully ready for battle. With no one left to kill in Scotland, the good King sent him off to clean up the royal mess here. Cornwallis built a fort on the hill overlooking Halifax Harbour and headed off into the woods to make war. He couldn’t find the French, so he drew [Cam’s Mi’kmak partner] Blair’s ancestors into a little game called genocide. The British say he won. Cornwallis didn’t procreate; Blair is here. I call that victory.

He’s similarly blunt about the shameful story of Africville:

For 125 years, the descendants of African slaves lived along the shoreline here. They built a tightknit and proud community in isolation and poverty. Africville was part of Halifax, but the city didn’t want it, wouldn’t provide sewer, water, or even police protection. As far as the good people of Halifax were concerned, Africville was a shantytown to be ignored. The city put the open-pit dump beside it and set up sewage lagoons nearby to drive home the point.

Then, one day, Africville mattered more than it wanted to. The people were evicted, and late one cold night in 1969 heavy equipment swept in and demolished the church. The last house was flattened within a month. The city called it urban renewal. Halifax needed a new bridge, and Africville was in the way. The suddenly homeless people were jammed into inner-city slums and ignored for decades. Some of the toughest gangs in the city came out of those inner-city kitchens where bitterness and frustration still simmer.

cornwallisWe learn almost as much about Cam from these accounts as about Halifax, and, again like Rankin, Jessome also uses this contextual material to emphasize the relationship between social and historical conditions and the city’s distinctive patterns of crime and violence.

Disposable Souls alternates between Cam’s first-person narration and third-person narration that moves around among other characters in the tense unfolding drama. Cam is a well-realized character: tough, angry, brave, loyal. His voice is dominated by the anger and the toughness, and after a while I did find myself wishing for more nuance: not just Cam but the book as a whole seemed too much all in one key, and that a particularly rough, grating one. Disposable Souls is a little bit too hard-boiled for my own taste: I didn’t particularly enjoy it. On the other hand, it’s perverse to expect a story about murder, child pornography, and biker gangs to be “enjoyable” — this is the paradox of all crime fiction, of course, that it offers up horrors as entertainment. In my detective fiction class I often raise questions about this ethical problem, especially when we read Agatha Christie or other writers of Golden Age or puzzle mysteries. The  writers of hard-boiled detective fiction and police procedurals are generally credited with making mystery fiction both more literary and more morally weighty by infusing it with realism, and on those grounds, Disposable Souls is definitely a success. There’s nothing amusing at all about its crimes, and Jessome effectively immerses us in the entirely unpleasant world where they take place. That I prefer my Halifax is a reflection on me more than on the novel!

Disposable Souls is well-told and skilfully plotted. I finished it, however, wondering what else it was, if anything. If I were to assign it in my detective fiction class, for instance, what (besides local color) would it bring to our discussions? I’m not sure what its deeper thematic burden is: I couldn’t see how its particular case stood, for instance, as symptomatic of anything more general, rather than as a case study of a hypothetical but sadly plausible scenario. There’s a lot of talk about rivalries between the regional police and the Mounties, but that felt either personal or bureaucratic, not especially political. The contrasting ethos of the police and the Stallions might be a fruitful avenue to explore, particularly in a course where we will already have talked about the dangerous appeal of vigilantism; I think Cam’s military background and its psychological aftermath would also make for an interesting comparison to Knots and Crosses, where Rebus’s SAS training is a crucial part of both his character and the case. I also don’t want to underestimate the interest and value of thinking about crime as a local issue. Certainly Disposable Souls has already made me think differently about this place where I’ve lived for over twenty years — about aspects of the city I’ve otherwise confronted only through newspaper headlines — and there’s something to be said for bringing our classroom discussions of justice close to home.

Regardless of whether I decide to teach it (and I’m very tempted to), I am glad I’ve read it: it’s the first Canadian crime novel I’ve read in a long time that has really made me sit up and take notice, and I’m grateful to Nimbus for sending me a review copy.