March 2011

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Watching the Detectives

Billed as a “truly original and darkly hilarious update of classic pulp noir,” Sean Beaudoin’s You Killed Wesley Payne had visions of a twenty-first century Philip Marlowe dancing in my head when it arrived with its snappy understated cover. Boy, was I ever wrong. Other than the fact that someone is dead and the mystery surrounding that death must be solved, there is absolutely nothing about Wesley Payne that is comparable to any other book out there. Wait, I take that back. If you loved the snarky truth of John Barnes's Tales of the Madman Underground or the world-weariness of Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, then you will certainly find a kindred spirit in teen detective Dalton Rev. But don’t expect a narrative that is even remotely recognizable in this tale. It’s so far outside the realm of how we live now that you might consider it science fiction, except that it also happens to be so brutally honest that it’s nothing less than a perfect satire of contemporary high school.

Oh, and it’s funnier than hell. When you aren’t feeling depressed over how screwed up we all are, or cheering Dalton on, you will certainly be laughing at the antics of all these kids and the adults who think they are controlling them, when really, it’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to the extreme. This makes it the guidebook for anyone who has ever attended school anywhere, and thus about the most relatable YA book I’ve come across in ages. Except when it’s not.

Okay, no more coy comments. Wesley Payne is dead. He was found hanging duct-taped by his ankles from a goal post at Salt River High. The police ruled it a suicide. Dalton, who has become a detective for personal and powerful reasons, is hired by a mysterious client to uncover the truth about Wesley’s death. He arrives at Salt River High suspecting everyone and immediately finds himself in the midst of a clique-driven world gone mad. (Beaudoin proves a handy chart of all the cliques and their relationships.) Everyone is marked by the group they belong to and all of them are at the mercy of the “Balls” (football team) and “Pinker Casket” (the resident punk band). Presiding over a shaky truce that has kept the violence barely contained is Principal Inference, who has so many secrets to hide it’s a full-time job, and the “Lee Harvies,” a group of anarchists who wield high-powered rifles from the school’s rooftops. Yes, there is the threat of violence here, but don’t expect a bloodbath. It all makes sense, and honestly, because the Lee Harvies are aware of just how serious the battles have gotten, it’s probably the sanest clique in the group. (Among many others there are also the “Foxxes,” “Plaths,” “Sis Boom Bahs,” “Smokes,” and, of course, he “Yearbook Committee,” who are beholden to no one and keep track of everything.)

Dalton quickly realizes that Wesley was special -- he was separate from the cliques as a “Crop Creme” and thus able to make them all aware of their pettiness by his own maturity. Here’s the breakdown of Wesley from his younger sister:

Listen, half the kids at school want to be Jeff, right? So they can be the big football star. The other half want to be Tarot so they can be a rock god. But, deep down, everyone knows these are just cliches. Wesley is who people really want to be, not just when there’s cheering but alone late at night. And on Sunday morning. And in the car with their mother.

He was the most powerful of them all, because he resisted control and that power, of course, meant he had to be stopped.

As he follows clues and challenges the status quo, Dalton discovers that Salt River High runs on a top-down system of graft that has teachers charging for grades, everyone selling information or promises, and all the wheels greased by the readily-available energy drink Rush. With a new sidekick (good for humorous asides if nothing else), his trusty “Private Dick Handbook,” and the occasional assistance of Cassiopeia Jones (new head of the “Foxxes,” with Jenny One, Two and Three), Dalton works his way through the clues and discovers what Wesley Payne was hiding, and why it mattered so much that he had to die for it. The mystery has all the prerequisite twists and turns, the characters are outstandingly deep and original and Beaudoin peppers the text with so many witty remarks that it reads like Gilmore Girls on acid. “She was absolutely smoking. She was disco atomic. She was Fat Man and Little Boy.” Or another favorite: “A kid wrapped himself in duct tape and went all INXS in the end zone? It could happen.” The cops are named Estrada and Hutch, a significant clue is found in “The Ballad of Mary Surratt,” and everyone runs around yelling “I swear to BOB!” Nothing is too crazy or off limits in You Killed Wesley Payne, and while I remain unsold on the noir comparison, I am now forever an unabashed fan of both this character (named “after this actor with a mullet who beats people up in my father’s favorite movie”) and author. This is a true teen mystery, and once you give yourself up to its strange, strange world, you won’t look back. Please tell me there’s as sequel, Mr. Beaudoin; I think we all deserve it.

After finishing up my January column, I had a couple more alternate history titles drop in my lap, and after I read the description of Mark Hodder’s The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, it took about two seconds for me to dive right in: “Sir Richard Francis Burton, an explorer, a linguist, a scholar, and a swordsman. His reputation tarnished; his career in tatters; his former partner missing and probably dead.” Richard Burton? Seriously? Really? Burton was one of the greatest explorers in British history (and they have a lot of explorers to choose from). He was brilliant and fearless and sexy, and right up until he settled into a life of domesticity and, well, dullness, he lived larger than most of us can imagine. It’s not so much that his later years were bad ones, just that they weren’t as exciting as his earlier ones, and when you read about him you have to wonder, what if. Mark Hodder clearly wondered the same thing, and he dropped Burton into an alternate history title that doesn’t just assume times have changed, but makes that change a plot point that is the tip of a mystery of epic proportions.

What you have is a creature right out of B-movie science fiction who appears in the streets and countryside of Victorian England to grope young women and leave them shocked and/or permanently damaged. The creature gets into an altercation with Burton, making several statements that suggest they know each other, and then vanishes, leaving the explorer alarmed and shaken. He barely has time to register what has happened before he is summoned by the Prime Minister and offered a job working unusual cases that fall outside traditional police work. It seems a pack of wolfmen (not what you think) are attacking people in the poorer sections of the London. Burton sets out to investigate and soon enough, as we know it will, all hell breaks loose.

It doesn’t take long for the reader to grasp some serious differences in Hodder’s London. Most noticeably, this is not Victorian London, as Victoria herself is dead, the victim of an assassin’s bullet in 1840 (in real life the assassin was unsuccessful). In the years that followed, there has been some minor political upheaval and a ton of technological and religious upheaval. As Booklist noted in its review, Hodder includes “steam-driven velocipedes, rotorchairs, verbally abusive messenger parrots, a pneumatic rail system, and robotic street cleaners.” Throw in the Libertines, Darwin, poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, inventor Isambard Kingdom Brunel, some engineered messenger dogs, and a ton of other intriguing characters real and imagined (Oscar Wilde, newspaper boy!) and the history and action converge in an enormously compelling way. But the heart of the story remains the question of Spring Heeled Jack, and what he is hunting for. As Burton gets ever closer to answers, readers will find themselves surprised in numerous ways -- all of which come together in a fantastic ending that promises more adventure in the future. (The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man is due out at the end of the month.) I loved the thrills and chills, and my inner historian geeked out all over to see Burton and Swinburne together (Hodder hews quite closely to Burton’s biography, here which raises the novel’s impact several notches), but it’s the way the mystery comes together that kept me turning the pages. Start this one only if you have some time on your hands; it won’t be easy to put it down.

Christina Weir and Nunzio Defilippis have ratcheted the girl detective genre up a notch with their contemporary graphic novel mysteries in the Amy Devlin series. Both Past Lies and All Saints' Day find recent college grad Devlin, who became a private investigator on a lark, in the thick of old crimes that are now shockingly new. She finds herself suddenly in the midst of something she can not control, but through wit and guile and the occasional use of judicious violence, she solves the mysteries. That all of this happens in Los Angeles, home of Marlowe, Jake Gittes (a la Chinatown), and Jim Rockford, just adds another layer to what Weir and Defilippis are creating.

The authors honor LA’s long detecting history with Past Lies, which embraces a twisted Howard Hughes determined to be reincarnated, and All Saints' Day, which centers on the murder of a B-movie actress, and channels true crime stories from everyone from the Black Dahlia (poor Elizabeth Short) to Phil Spector’s murder of Lana Clarkson. California is ripe for murder mysteries, as Amy Devlin discovers; it also possesses both an old-world sensibility and new-world layer of glitz that is always just a little bit this side of tawdry. Amy isn’t plucky, and she doesn’t have the endless patient support of a father like Carson Drew, but she is determined and frustrated and perpetually close to being angry as hell. Amy solves mysteries because she likes to, and she’s good at it. The fact that she’s not a licensed private investigator gets her into hot water with the local cops but doesn’t change anything. She’s good, but like every girl detective that has come before her, she has to prove it.

The Amy Devlin mysteries are not written for kids -- both carry the “Older Audiences” tag because of some violence and language and, in the case of Past Lies, a few scenes in a strip club that are rendered by illustrator Christopher Mitten with the appropriate level of nudity. (Not Showtime nudity, more HBO.) What Amy does have for high school readers is the story of what happened when Harriet the Spy grows up. Girls have the detecting spirit ingrained in their heads from a young age, and are offered a long line of spunky heroines past and present to nurture that nosiness that otherwise would be off-putting to elder family members. (Current young readers should start with Jennifer Allison’s quirky Gilda Joyce series, and then move on the Kirsten Miller’s fabulous Kiki Strike.) But what happens when the girl grows up, moves out, and graduates from college? It never happens in any of the books -- the transition is never there. She’s either ten and peeking through keyholes, or 35 and partnering up with Detective Stabler at SVU. The Amy Devlin mysteries fill that gap brilliantly, giving us a young female detective who doesn’t have it all figured out, still relies heavily on the same stick-to-it-iveness of a Veronica Mars, but also -- and this is key -- carries a gun and knows how to use it. While the teen detectives are wandering the high school hallways and breaking into lockers, Amy is hunting a serial killer and uncovering the seedy side of the world’s most dysfunctional rich family. Weir and Diflippis give their girl detective a necessary edge that lands her more realistically in a grown-up world, and will keep readers turning pages to see what mayhem Amy uncovers in pursuit of the truth.

Both Past Lies (illustrated by Mitten) and All Saints' Day (illustrated by Dove McHargue with Kate Kasenow) are published in black and white with crisp lines and stark images which match the straightforward nature of their storylines. Oni Press has released them in digest-sized hardcovers with slick design that fits well with their noirish nature. I’d love to see Chandler receive the same treatment (or Howard Fast). First class all the way, have these on hold for when teen readers are ready to make the leap from high school crime.

Karen Joy Fowler takes the short story in directions readers could never anticipate, and her latest collection from the wonderful Small Beer Press, What I Didn’t See: Stories, offers up numerous delights for the smart and creative reader. From the wham-bang start of “The Pelican Bar” to the Hemingway-esque title story, Fowler takes you from the past to the future in stories that feature speculative fiction elements, or are starkly true to life. Cast your preconceived notions aside and settle in to explore the human mysteries Fowler mines with abandon. This is literature at its most intriguing, and a reminder of how bold and daring a gifted writer can be.

“The Pelican Bar” follows the unfortunate adventures of 15-year old Norah, who in the opening pages is on her way to one of those school/camp places where difficult teens are dumped by their parents so they can be forcefully turned into Pollyannas (or at least stop using the f-word all the time). Norah finds herself in some sort of gothic hell that manages to exist in our world (Pink is name-checked in the first sentence), but where things are certainly not as you expect them to be. The dream of escape permeates this tale, culminating in a visit to the longed-for Pelican Bar. And then Norah finds out just what her school was really all about, which will make you want to flip the pages and read the story all over again.

There are two great stories about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln -- “Booth’s Ghost” and “Standing Room Only,” which approach the event from those who knew John Wilkes Booth, and have been overlooked (if not ignored) by history. This fictional/factual spin on history is a twist Fowler also follows with “Private Grave 9,” about archaeology during Howard Carter’s reign, and “What I Didn’t See,” about museum collecting in Africa, which is at times familiar and foreign until its final shattering paragraphs frankly blow away anything the great explorers have ever written about the Dark Continent. Fowler puts you in places you expect, and then uncovers all the little secrets you have never noticed before, all the voices you never thought to hear, and all the characters who were not part of history -- but oh, if only they were. It’s amazing how secretive the human heart truly is when you think about it.

In “The Marianas Islands,” she writes a familiar story about an aging grandmother that ends with the gift of a submarine (I’m not kidding), and there are stories of journeys and friendship and moments of self-realization -- but then, in the final pages, there is “King Rat,” which is everything the book is about and more, but mostly about stories and what they tell and what they should tell and why they often tell everything wrong. Fowler is making a statement with this one, an assertion about what we want and what we need, and always and completely about what stories give us. And with that last page I think I uncovered the biggest secret of all in What I Didn’t See: you have to be a good writer to hide secrets in plain sight, and you have to be good enough to make people miss them and then happily read their way back around to discover the twists and turns all over again. Bravo, Ms. Fowler, bravo.

For a more traditional read, teen readers will appreciate the thriller Black Swan Rising for its classic “save the world” paranormal plot and (the girls anyway) will also likely find the vampire love interest appealing. What got me into Lee Carroll’s story, though (Carroll is a husband and wife writing team) were all the shout-outs to Shakespeare, British history, and Greek myths. The vamp was okay (although the brief love scene read more as required plot device than passion), but it’s really protagonist Garet’s very human friends and the manner in which the mystery unfolds that propel the narrative. Clearly, the message here is that on a gray and rainy day, when you see an odd storefront that seems to be calling out especially to you, take a second and consider just whether or not the rain is worse than what you might find in that inviting doorway. Creepy store, creepy storekeeper, creepy things to follow. Stay in the rain, dear reader, stay in the rain.

Recent college grad Garet is a fledgling jewelry designer who operates the family art gallery with her widowed father. His poor decisions have placed them in extreme financial distress and this weighs heavily on Garet’s mind as she waits out a storm in an unassuming antiques shop. While making small talk, the owner asks that she take a vintage silver box that needs specialized attention from a jewelry designer. The box has a swan symbol that matches one on a ring Garet’s mother gave her before being killed in a car accident. Garet takes the box and later that night, once it is opened, everything changes.

What you’ve got here is an alchemist right out of the Elizabethan age, a faery king, a homeless mermaid, a DJ who can fly, a vampire who acts more Bruce Wayne then Edward Cullen, some historical research, a healthy dose of genealogy, and the whole great big “YOU WERE BORN FOR THIS” moment. Is it heavy on cliche? Well, yeah, but it's a lot of fun, and Garet is smart and tough and yet also willing to ask all the questions readers need answered. She is having her twenty-something moment of not being sure what to do with her life, but unfortunately she’s having it while being chased down by a very big baddie who has things with teeth at his command. The romantic subplot is rushed along (romance is not easy to write, people) but I’ll give the authors some credit for keeping things interesting. The ending is wide open for sequels, and for light mystery reading, Black Swan Rising has a lot to offer.

Finally, Lia Hills has crafted a novel that seeks out answers to life’s biggest mysteries: why we are here, why our lives matter, and what happens when we die. The Beginner’s Guide to Living opens in the aftermath a sudden death. Seventeen-year-old Will has lost his mother in a car accident, and as he struggles to cope with the enormous void in his life, his father and older brother find themselves are incapable of reaching him. Will turns to a new friend, Taryn, to sort out his feelings both about his family. Their relationship turns physical, which adds a boatload of other questions to the mix, but through it all, Will maintains a steadfast determination to understand just what living means. He reads through all sorts of philosophical texts (Nietzsche to Kierkegaard and beyond) to find some way to connect with his own confusion and find a way to get his father and brother to admit that “it fucking hurts.” In the end he gets through it -- they all get through it -- and although there is certainly some dramarama to be found here, Hills writes with far more self assurance and care than histrionics. I flashed back a bit to Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World while reading The Beginner’s Guide to Living, and can see how reading it would generate an interest in philosophy (always a good thing). Will and Taryn (and their siblings) are all believable young adults, all with questions, all searching for something. For once that doesn’t lead them to destructive behavior, but rather a more honest way of seeing the world, and reaching out to those they care about.

COOL READ: G. Neri explores the mystery of a little boy and the horror that his life became in Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty. In graphic novel format, Neri and illustrator Randy DuBurke retell how 11-year-old Robert “Yummy” Sandifer came to be a lonely, defiant child who turned to a gang for reassurance and ended up killing a neighbor in a murder that defied all explanation. Yummy’s victim, Shavon Dean, was a 14-year-old girl who was sitting on her front steps as he aimed at “so-called rivals” playing street football in  a misguided attempt to gain “street cred.” Yummy knew Shavon; she was a well liked teen who had no enemies -- and  neither did Yummy until he joined the Black Disciples and accepted their complicated lists of alliances and conflicts as his own. His attempt to gain the gang’s respect resulted in too much attention, however, and days after Shavon’s murder, Yummy was killed by fellow gang members. Two children were dead for reasons no one could truly understand, but as Neri explains, dismissing Yummy as a child born bad would be far too simplistic.

By telling the story of that deadly Chicago summer through the eyes of a fictional classmate, Roger, whose older brother is also a Black Disciple, Neri does not allow readers to categorize Yummy easily. He is a child let down by parents, overlooked by his overwhelmed grandmother and ignored by all those safety nets that are supposed to save children in peril. In the book’s final pages, the protagonist is taken to Yummy’s funeral along with nearly every other boy in the neighborhood. The adults want them to see what could happen if they follow Yummy’s path. But readers will wonder if this is really enough -- if you really can be “scared straight” when, as dangerous as gang life might be, it is still a life where you will matter to someone, where you will garner some significance. “This is the only way someone from our neighborhood is ever gonna be on the cover of Time,” says Roger’s father in disgust, eyeing the actual cover article about Yummy that ran in 1994. That’s the only answer Neri can find to explain what happened to Yummy, and because of him, what happened to Shavon as well. Yummy was not a child worthy of notice until he did something so awful he could not be ignored. The author’s message is clear, notice them before the bullets for once; notice these kids when they are just kids with all their hopes and dreams ahead of them and maybe the stories won’t be so dramatic but they will end much better, for everyone. “Choose wisely,” Neri writes in his final author’s note, “...if you can find a way to make a choice in life, then other decisions may be easier. Choose wisely.” That’s not a message just for the kids facing the gangs but for all the rest of us as well.

Colleen Mondor blogs regularly at Chasing Ray on all sorts of literary matters.