December 2003

Damien Weaver

fiction

Owl of the Desert by Ida Swearingen

Ida Swearingen's Owl of the Desert is a tough little crime novel, a pleasure for those who enjoy hardboiled writing.

Kate Porter has just finished doing twelve years of hard time for a murder she didn't commit, the shooting of a secretary in the course of a bank heist. Kate's thrown away more than a decade expiating her own guilt, but now she's done suffering. She's going to track down and kill the man she holds responsible for both the murder and the derailment of Kate's life: Her father, Bud Porter.

Kate's revenge won't be easy. Bud Porter isn't merely a bank robber, he's the charismatic head of a survivalist militia, a Robin Hood figure to some, who's been on the run for years and taught Kate everything she knows about both survival and assassination. He's a powerful enemy, and Kate's only ally is a smarmy agent of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, a chipper, ornithologically obsessed operative occupying the grey area between quirky and creepy. Agent MacGruder's interest in Kate -- aside from one smoothly rebuffed stab at seducing her -- is a chess player's interest in a useful pawn. He wants Bud's scalp for his belt, and Kate is a means to that end.

Kate isn't worried; she doesn't need allies. Her quasi-military upbringing and a dozen years of state pen have wrung most of the humanity out of her. The only real love Kate's had in her adult life, a girlfriend she made in prison, betrayed her years ago. Kate's other living relative, her brother Dwight, is a wheelchair-bound televangelist from whom she's comfortably estranged. Dwight dropped out of Bud's militia as a teenager, and having an outlaw for a father and a convicted felon (and mercy's sake, a lesbian!) for a sister just gives him more grist for his ministry's money mill.

I'd like to warn any readers with sensitive sexist sensibilities, sensibilities the genre typically coddles, that this paragraph uses the word patriarchy and touches on how Owl casually subverts the misogyny endemic to crime writing. This book isn't polemical -- it's strictly business from beginning to end -- but it centers around a strong female protagonist who isn't a damsel in distress, a man-eating femme fatale, nor that most painful of clichés, a madwoman. Kate Porter is something the milieu could use more of. She's a capable, complex woman, a veteran of death and mayhem with a fierce personal sense of justice and Mike Hammer's scorn for the system. As she attempts to draw her father out of hiding and into a game of cat-and-mouse, she's up against a manifold patriarchy: A criminal underground in which women are relegated to floozies and ornaments, the ultra-macho world of her former right-wing paramilitary, the patronizing condescension of her KBI handler, and of course the patriarch of her own life, a father whom she still thinks of as "sir." What she doesn't know is that she's also operating in a fictional tradition that regards men as the principals, the doers and actors. Detective fiction, crime writing's dorky, pious cousin, has evolved relatively progressive politics, but if you can think of another lesbian in crime fiction who isn't mentally unbalanced, you're better read in the genre than this reviewer.

The author, Ms. Swearingen, is not a lyrical stylist. Her understated humor, dry as a longhorn's sun-bleached skull, is well served by short declarative sentences and clean, uncluttered phrasing. The prose is as lean and muscular as Kate Porter herself, leavened here and there with a touch of Kate's winsome awkwardness. The reader's only frustration will be with the obvious errors of punctuation plaguing the text, typos that a copyeditor should have caught. The publisher, New Victoria, must be further chastised for a murky, visually unappealing cover. The colors, the art, and the fonts: 0 for 3. Owl is pulp in the word's most flattering sense, an intelligent and well-oiled novel that deserves the lurid, attention-grabbing presentation its genre made famous.

Owl of the Desert by Ida Swearingen
New Victoria Publishers
ISBN: 1892281198
192 Pages