James Scott Bell, one of my favorite teachers of crime-fiction craft, says that every passage and page of a story should thrum with what he calls “pleasurable uncertainty.” That’s a sense I’ve never felt in the four novels by Lori Rader-Day, and especially her latest, UNDER A DARK SKY.
Nobody dies until a fifth of the way into the novel, and until then, we’re sunk into the soggy ruminations of Eden Wallace, who decided to keep her husband’s reservations for a guest house at a “dark-sky park” in rural Michigan, even though her husband died several months before. There’s no sense of high stakes or imminent danger as Eden meets the six sharp-edged twentysomethings who also have reservations at the house for a curiously strained reunion.
Things don’t particularly pick up after one of the six is found with a screwdriver in the side of his neck, and UNDER A DARK SKY suffers under Eden’s suffocatingly self-loathing voice as she is forced to become more deeply involved with her increasingly erratic housemates under circumstances that strain plausibility. It was the sort of novel I forced myself to consume in small bites, like bits of Mom’s overboiled spinach, until I finally gratefully collapsed at the end of its silly, shrieky, too-neat-set-piece finale.
Like Rader-Day’s other novels, for me anyway, UNDER A DARK SKY suffers from a sustained failure to lift off the ground and generate the sort of tailwind that makes the pages turn. And that makes its uncertainties less than pleasurable, as evidenced by a number of lines like this: “I had learned something but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. ‘Nothing,’ I said. And that was the strange thing, perhaps. Sam was too much nothing, and that was something.”
In this time of complicated female point-of-view characters who are complicit to varying degrees in the crimes piling up around then, is there really much of an appetite for a pure-victim “heroine” whose only crime is loving or trusting the wrong people? Seems hard to believe, and yet here’s Marissa Parlette, who is little more than the target of a seemingly sustained gaslighting campaign from almost everybody in her life, including the former best friend who is found at the beach at the bottom of a cliff on her fiancé’s property. There’s enough furtive text messages, cryptic conversational foreshadowing and late-night disappearing acts to fill an ID channel episode of Someone You Thought You Knew.
At least the twists are plentiful and the pages do turn, in between heavy slatherings of Brigadoon-level lifestyle porn: “I inhale the salty air, listen to the soft rush of the sea. We’re fifteen minutes beyond the outskirts of Tranquil Cove, a sleepy town of ten thousand residents, west of Seattle on the shores of Enchanted Bay, on the Olympic Peninsula—a protected, curved inlet meandering in from the Pacific Ocean. Idyllic, peaceful.” I live in a place that should be like that, and like every other place like that, it’s nothing like that.
But in the end, all the skillful plotting in AFTER NIGHTFALL can’t cover up the fact that the central character is an empty set of clothes. Marissa Parlette does little that isn’t in reaction to something that someone else does, and like other Banner heroines, she has no reason to grow. She’s just fine as is; it’s everyone else who insists on torturing her for no reason other than her shining goodness. Small wonder that “Marissa” is close to “Mary Sue.”
One of the great discoveries of the year for me has been the under-promoted THE GIRL FROM BLIND RIVER, a debut tale from Gale Massey. Unlike UNDER A DARK SKY, this one thrums with tension from the opening page. And unlike AFTER NIGHTFALL, 19-year-old Jamie Elders is a fascinatingly complicated character, with one foot in the criminal underworld of her grubby small town in upstate New York and one foot on the interstate to nowhere and everywhere:
“If there was a window to escape, it was closing fast. Right here at the underside of twenty, there was an opening, maybe a month, and it might be the only time she’d be able to leave, find her way to some city where there were real jobs, where winters weren’t so fucking cold, where no one would ask her to help move a dead body in the middle of the night. Somewhere she’d have half a shot, before she got in too deep and this town pulled her under. Like it was doing right now.”
There’s almost nothing more relatable than the desire to be free from one’s stultifyingly ordinary circumstances and escape into the hope, illusory or otherwise, of a better life. Especially after you’re conscripted to help get rid of a body that may turn out to be dead weight shackled to your ankle.
Jamie isn’t an innocent. She does various low-level tasks for her uncle and his friend Judge Keating that she’s sure aren’t entirely legal. She smokes weed, flunks out of college, has an ill-advised affair with an older married man. But she knows that she doesn’t want to be a small-town, small-time grifter, that she wants to give her angry, impulsive younger brother a shot at getting out of Blind River as well, and she wants to see what she can do with her poker-playing skills beyond playing online and in rigged games around town.
THE GIRL FROM BLIND RIVER is not the kind of twist-riddled, pulse-pumping, superjacked-adrenaline thriller that’s dominating crime fiction these days. Instead, it has the courage to operate at a steady slow-burn pace, unspooling its reversals and rising stakes with a sure touch that gives subtle character shadings all the room they need to cast a spell on the patient reader. Will Jamie make it? The question will haunt you to the final page.
Few things annoy me more in private-eye novels than front-loaded heroes: knight-errants who are ridiculously attractive, financially secure, and morally uncomplicated if personally messy.
That’s why I’ve always loved Stephen Dobyns’ series of Saratoga, New York-set novels featuring ex-cop Charlie Bradshaw, an overweight man with “a nose like a grape” who dresses in stained, worn clothes and Hush Puppies with crushed heels. He falls behind on his bills, can’t fix his own toilet, and doesn’t always get the girl. His perpetual hangdog demeanor belies a stubborn nature that sees him through a case even when everybody—even members of his own family—carpet-bombs him with disregard and disrespect.
The series began in 1976 and resumed, after a 19-year hiatus, in 2017, and I’m not sure if there’s more in the tank from Dobyns, a renowned poet who turned 77 this year. I recently reread the series, and suggest SARATOGA SWIMMER (1981) as a starting point.
In this novel, the second of eleven in the series, Charlie is a horse-stable guard with little official standing. As such, he annoys everybody from the police chief down by poking at the edges of the investigation into his boss’s murder. At the same time, he’s pursuing a romance with a waitress who we know will break his heart in a way that’s refreshingly realistic. She’s no duplicitous bitch; she likes Charlie well enough, but just isn’t as into him as he is to her. Who hasn’t been there?
Like all the Saratoga novels, SARATOGA SWIMMER deftly balances plot with rich character notes. The novels are filled with little gems like this: “All that he minded about his current bad reputation was that he could no longer coach Little League baseball, which for Charlie, standing by third base on a warm summer evening and urging some little kid to slide, was what life was all about.”
Jim Thomsen is a writer and editor who divides his time between Florida and his hometown of Bainbridge Island, Washington. Learn more at jimthomsencreative.com.
Thanks for stopping by and reading Unlawful Act’s and Jim Thomsen’s Shoulder Wounds.