Shoulder Wounds No. 3

Book reviews of Gina Wolhsdorf’s “Blood Highway”, Randy Kennedy’s “Presidio”, Anthony Neil Smith’s “The Cyclist”, and Sue Grafton’s “B is for Burglar”.

“Men love women who hate themselves. And most women do. We’re taught to from the age of nine or ten: you bleed, you’re weak, ick, ack, you’re disgusting. A great many women fight their self-hate, though, by hating other women more.”

Rainy Cain is just about the world’s most self-aware teenager, to the point that referring to her as a girl seems like an insult considering how much she’s packed into her seventeen years. In Gina Wolhsdorf’s BLOOD HIGHWAY, Rainy has a long list, beginning with her beginning as the product of bank robbers, one of which went to prison and one of which went crazy. When Sam Cain breaks out of prison in pursuit of hidden robbery loot in the millions—money that Sam is convinced Rainy knows how to find—it’s time for Rainy to say goodbye to her fragile façade of a normal teenage life in Minnesota and hit the road. But not only does Sam want her, so does a creepily solicitous young cop, and it’s an open question as to who ultimately represents the bigger threat to Rainy.

Wohlsdorf knows how to keep the pages turning, not just with plot but with Rainy’s deliciously acidic (and accurate) observations about men: “My appearance had conferred its usual set of advantages and disadvantages: adult male meets adolescent girl with big lips and a lot of hair and is titillated, so he’ll be nice out of shame but he’ll also fight a flare of anger, sweetmeat he knows he won’t get to taste.”

That wild momentum sometimes cuts against the grain of the voice. Rainy drifts from her unreal reality to flights of fever dreaminess, and it takes a more careful read than the story encourages to be sure of what’s actually happened—and what’s happened only in Rainy’s overtaxed mind. That’s a small quibble, though about this unflinchingly violent and uncomfortably truthful novel.

I got onto the on-ramp of BLOOD HIGHWAY with a lot of hesitation. A previous Algonquin Books dip into crime-fiction waters, Tim Johnston’s DESCENT—a kidnapped-girl thriller mostly concerned with the inert, cigarette-smoking brooding of the manly men in her family—was one of the worst “literary” crime novels I’d ever read, pretentious, pandering and paternalistic in equal measure. I’m pleased to say that BLOOD HIGHWAY is much better, if only because it takes the seemingly radical step of letting a snatched girl tell her own story. I still can’t believe that such things still need to be specially noted in 2018.

I went into Randy Kennedy’s debut novel PRESIDIO with a lot of ambivalence, and emerged with the same, and, well … I didn’t regret the effort it took to get there.

I was intrigued by Lee Child’s review of it in The New York Times, in which he praised the authenticity of its early 1970s Texas noir and its intriguingly alienated main character, an itinerant motel dweller and car thief who does what he does for survival more than profit. And I was annoyed by the review, which seemed to say that its blurbs from a couple of noted Texas literary heavyweights were reason enough to read the book, which to me strays outside the bounds of a reviewer’s scope. Every once in a while, A-listers come together to lift up an author, having decided on their own that the author’s time had come for promotion into their elite, and in my view the books they chose were usually not the right vehicle for it (i.e., the worthy Steve Hamilton and the less worthy THE SECOND LIFE OF NICK MASON, which read to me like the quickie novelization of a story created to be a screenplay).

Also, PRESIDIO stumbles out of the gate with its split structure: half narrative and half extended epistolary matter. The latter renders the novel so heavy with italics that you may find yourself racing past things you need to know just to get back to a typeface that doesn’t piss off your eyes.

Another alienating early feature is PRESIDIO’s occasionally overreaching prose, which reads like that of an uneducated small-town Texan scamming his way into the Iowa Writers Workshop and seemingly desperate to assert a place among its overweeners: “Sometimes I sit in a hot bath, one leg crossed over the other, thinking about the world at work while I watch the pulse of my heartbeat in the hollow of my ankle.” Ugh.

But, well … there’s something more there. Something that works in spite of the sluggish interiority and the soggy but apparently mandatory meditations on the sparse south Texas landscape. For me, that something is Troy Falconer, the main POV voice of PRESIDIO, a man of equally profound and pointless alienation, a man who lives in cheap motels and steals cheap cars not so much because he’s bad but because he’s good at it, and doesn’t want to do anything else even as he’s dimly aware that at some point he probably should.

Maybe because I’m sort of a solo drifter on the margins myself, lines like this really stuck the landing for me: “My real profession is the careful and highly precarious maintenance of a life almost completely purified of personal property” and “He had an uncommon capacity for two things: lying and enjoying his own company.”

The plot is somewhat beside the point, and it shows in PRESIDIO’s rushed and uninspired ending. But it’s sturdy enough to keep readers on the hook: Troy and his brother Harlan undertake a road trip to find Bettie, a woman of intimate history with both men who stole Harlan’s money. Troy steals one car after another to keep them moving, and one—a station wagon belonging to a mother in a grocery store—turns out, hours after the theft, to contain a young girl half in and half out of the Mennonite world. Troy, who usually operates well below law enforcement radar, is suddenly a major target.

PRESIDIO isn’t as good as its A-lister praise would suggest. It’s a novel that demands more of the reader than, as a debut, it’s earned the right to ask, in my opinion. But if you hook on to what’s good about it, as I managed to, you might be glad that you did. After I read a book, I always ask myself: “Would you read the next book by this author?” And despite my ambivalence, the answer is an unequivocal yes.

THE CYCLIST is billed by Anthony Neil Smith, long a respected dweller in the hardboiled underground, as his bid for entry into the mainstream thriller market. It succeeds at the thriller basics—putting its characters in an unholy mess and making you burn through the pages to see who survives and how—but it takes what sometimes feels like a needlessly wobbly ride to get there.

The story: Judd, a failed Marine unhappily stuck in a Minneapolis office-drone job, finds escape online in the form of Catriona, a seemingly adventurous young woman in Scotland. Their longings become reality in the form of a planned bicycle trip through the Scottish Highlands, but what Judd hoped would be a fresh chance at happiness is soon thwarted by folks with darker agendas.

I wasn’t prepared for—nor could easily stomach—a hard and unsignaled turn off the paved path into the thickets of torture-porn. (Your mileage may vary, of course.) And I found the prose lumpy for a thriller, a subgenre whose entrants usually traffic in the sleek, smooth simple declarative. Short emotional bursts of run-ons and fragments are interspersed with long sentences waylaid by parenthetic asides and nested clauses, making this literary bicycle trek a less comfortable ride than it could have been.

(An example: “They passed an ancient-looking hotel and pub, this one very much alive, and several newish [let’s say nineties] storefronts on buildings from long ago –cafes, an Indian takeaway, a small grocer, more pubs.”)

Smith is a standout storyteller, and he’s got some fine work in his backlist and likely better stuff in his future, but THE CYCLIST is, to my mind, not the ideal showcase for gaining a mainstream-thriller audience. As a gut-clenching tale to pass the time, however, it more than gets the job done—I never stopped caring about who would survive, and how and why, no matter how splattery the story got.

Half the fun of re-reading Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series is its retro ridiculousness. The twenty-five novels are set in the 1980s, and as real time increasingly separated from Kinsey Time, that was a smart move, because they couldn’t have possibly taken place any later, not for a private detective who succeeded at her work by doing what she couldn’t possibly do today.

Kinsey gets the clues she needs by talking apartment managers into letting her rummage through the units of missing people, by getting cabbies and hotel clerks to spill private, proprietary info about possible suspects, by getting chatty clerks to hand over confidential customer and patient records. Can you imagine a PI being able to work that way today in an era of paranoia, of HIPAA and histrionic cybersecurity? (Do apartment managers even live on-site any more?) You find yourself wistful for a time when people could talk to people without first assuming the worst of them as a measure of basic self-protection.

The things that are annoying about Kinsey are there as well. Funny how a character who is held up as a feminist icon is so hatefully judgmental about almost every woman she meets. (Examples: “She was chunky through the waist. What is it about middle age that makes a woman’s body mimic pregnancy?” and “She was small, with a dowager’s hump the size of a backpack. Her face was as soft and withered as an apple doll and arthritis had twisted her hands into grotesque shapes, as though she intended to make geese heads in shadow on the wall.”) What is a “dowager’s hump”?

Her physical descriptions are often bitingly funny, but also shot through with what I see as a deep self-loathing disguised as second-wave feminism and uncommon comfort with herself. There’s just something a bit sad and un-self-aware that undercut assertions like “I’d rather grow old alone than in the company of anyone I’ve met so far. I don’t experience myself as lonely, incomplete, or unfulfilled, but I don’t talk about that much. It seems to piss people off—especially men.” (Maybe I think that because I sometimes say things like that and know I’m semi-full of shit.) Though as a man I find it is a malicious sort of fun to watch Kinsey and her contemporaries consistently talk about men as faceless, replaceable entities who exist to be used and discarded: “I figure guys are like Whitman’s Samplers. I like to take a little bite out of each and then move on before the whole box gets stale.” (Maybe because I wish I’d be used like that more often.)

Also, B IS FOR BURGLAR takes place just two weeks after the events of A IS FOR ALIBI, and the second novel harks back to the first just enough for us to know that a) Kinsey’s still struggling with having killed someone, and b) she chooses to make no mental room or time for the struggle.

It’s that shadowy glimpse of Kinsey’s hidden self that keeps readers on the hook for the series, much more than the sturdiness of the plots, which are mere scaffolding for the entrancing and elusive study of Kinsey’s character. There’s nothing cozy about this series: Santa Teresa is a town of transition and turmoil, and Kinsey Millhone is a heroine who is in turmoil primarily because she resists transition.

Jim Thomsen is a writer and editor who divides his time between Florida and his hometown of Bainbridge Island, Washington. Learn more at

Thanks for stopping by and reading Jim Thomsen’s Shoulder Wounds at Unlawful Acts.




2 replies on “Shoulder Wounds No. 3”

I googled dowager’s hump. It has something to do with a condition called kyphosis. And what comes to Kinsey Millhone as a character… I think 80s PI fiction with female protagonists tried to strike a blance between hard-boiled PI tradition and feminism, and she was a one result of that.

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