The theme of my reading the last few weeks has been: Sometimes all you come away with from the experience of reading a novel is how you viscerally react to it.
I can’t tell you why I loved Scott Von Doviak’s CHARLESGATE CONFIDENTIAL, only that I did, that, as I posted on Twitter, each page was a greased pan of pure reading pleasure. I’ve read largely laudatory reviews that expertly broke down what makes the novel work, and I agree with them, but somehow I was unable to form the sentences that spelled out CHARLESGATE CONFIDENTIAL’s success with the mechanics of plot, structure, character, pacing and prose style.
The story cuts between stories set in 1946, 1986 and 2014, each loosely connected to a series of killings connected to the theft of some priceless paintings from the Gardner Museum in Boston (the author cleverly appropriated the real-life 1990 incident into his 1946 story) and its lingering connection to the Charlesgate building, a residential structure with a fascinating, haunted boom-and-bust history.
While Von Doviak clearly loves Boston and loves history, he never gets bogged down in them to the point that he forgets to tell a story. And this is a story about character, and to the extent that I can articulate my good feelings about the novel, I can say that the characters are a fascinating blend of good and bad, bright and stupid, and brave and weak, and never feel contrived from a checklist of craft-guide characteristics. They have that real, blind-spotted, complicated-but-simple feel of lives that have been semi-comfortably slept in, that can only be created by a writer with a core confidence in what they’re doing, who have lived these people in their heads for so long that when they come out into the world, they’re walking and talking and strutting like kids ready to rule the playground.
Tommy Donnelly, the central character of the 1986 story, for example: he’s a clever, fun, hardworking student who stumbles on an interesting mystery. We root for him to put together the clues and get the loot and get the girl he lusts after. But he doesn’t really have what it takes to get to the finish line, and he freezes up in the face of true evil when its shadow falls across his beer glass. And I found I liked that better than a more conventional character arc. You will too, trust me.
More I will not say, because I cannot say, other than CHARLESGATE CONFIDENTIAL just plain works, and I felt constantly caught between my desire to race through it and my desire to savor it in little bites and save it up for days like a child’s dessert. Not a very critic thing to say, I know, but it’s honestly all I’ve got.
The next novel in my queue was Amy Stewart’s GIRL WAITS WITH GUN, the first of four novels (so far) about the Kopp sisters of New Jersey, set in the years of World War I. And damned if I didn’t have exactly the same experience. Each page was a slice of pure pleasure, and I’ve been thinking about why for more than a week, and I just don’t have the answers in any way I can articulate.
It’s partly that Constance Kopp, the point-of-view character, is a total original in my reading experience. She’s a strong woman, yet she’s the product of women-need-to-be-protected-and-diminished culture of her time, and she’s not necessarily looking to upend the social order. She’s smart and yet constantly doubts herself because that’s what she’s been conditioned to do since birth. She’s defiant and yet seems to be constantly seeking permission to defy.
And she’s clearly born to be a police detective, and she’s clearly the last person to see it or appreciate it. Or accept it.
The story: When the Kopp sisters run afoul of a politically powerful silk-factory owner, they find themselves the target of a sustained campaign of harassment, to the point that Constance and her younger sisters, Norma and Fleurette, are nearly driven to leave their isolated family farm and accept their loving subjugation of their older brother. Nearly, and yet they can’t quite accept the idea that three women alone can’t take care of themselves, and Constance can’t quite keep herself from asking uncomfortable questions about how certain men treat certain women that draw her closer to truths that few people are prepared to see exposed to the light.
The more I thought about GIRL WAITS WITH GUN and CHARLESGATE CONFIDENTIAL, what I decided they had in common was an infectious high-spiritedness that never came across as goofy, implausible or manic-pixie-dream-like. Both novels speak to the person in all of us that craves adventure, craves disruption of the ordinariness we in many cases have worked so hard to bury ourselves within. None of the characters in either books are heedless or reckless or ridiculous, yet they can’t help but find themselves leaning into a mess even as it gets messier, heeding a true calling being broadcast on a frequency they can’t yet identify.
Near the end of GIRL WAITS WITH GUN, Norma Kopp, whose whole life is dedicated to making it as small and manageable and safe as possible, finally gives up on hoping Constance will be the same: “You’ve had such a high time running around playing detective. Why don’t you become one of those?”
And what’s more exciting, and relatable, than that?
The visceral-reaction thing cuts both ways, too.
I first read the next book in my queue thirty years ago. In 1988, I was in my early twenties, close to the end of my college career, and desperately eager to assert myself to the world as not just a grownup, but an alpha-male adult. I desperately wanted women and I desperately wanted women to want me, to want to defer to me, to want to be rescued by me.
The first sign that I was not destined to be that kind of man came while reading THE MONKEY’S RAINCOAT, the first of Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole and Joe Pike private-detective novels. Elvis Cole was everything I thought I wanted to be, only he made what I thought I wanted to be seem like the most repellent thing in the solar system.
Elvis Cole is a man. A man’s man. A ladies’ man. A man who grabs asses without invitation, who talks down to women, who seduces them so casually you aren’t even sure it actually happened. He’s full of sub-Catskills snappy patter and stiletto judgments, and is apparently supposed to be sympathetic despite all of this because of coy, leg-baring hints of a tortured past rooted in Cole’s Vietnam service. (I guess Crais forget to make him an alcoholic as well, and I’m surprised the critics didn’t ding him for inadequate trope adherence.)
The women he meets? They fall mostly into three categories: shrews, simpletons and sexpots, all paralyzed with displays of facile psychoanalysis and over-the-top flights of unsolicited knight-errantude. As a result, Elvis Cole comes off as a completely cartoonish avatar of male aspirationalism, as frontloaded and overloaded a “hero” as Spenser or Stone Barrington or Lucas Davenport.
No wonder THE MONKEY’S RAINCOAT was a runaway success at the time — it was as loud and aggressive as Gordon Gekko wearing a screaming yellow power tie in a room full of Robert Bork supporters. Also, I should add, it’s a good novel, well-written, more than competently plotted, and achieves what it sets out to accompish.
I closed the book in 1988 with one clear thought: I don’t want to be anything like this asshole. If this is the way to get women, I’d just as soon go Full Metal Celibate. And so I guess my 1988 self should thank Crais for helping disabuse me of this moronic Reagan-Republican idea of male exceptionalism and starting me down the road toward being what I hope, three decades later, has been something better.
I’m reliably assured by many friends in the crime-fiction community that the series eventually got a lot better, that Crais became a better author and Cole became a better character, and that I should give those subsequent novels a shot. I reread THE MONKEY’S RAINCOAT with the intention of doing that, to see if time had mellowed my memories of my 23-year-old’s mindset.
But, two things:
One, I don’t want to spend another minute inside this misogynist’s mind. It was a genuinely unsettling and unpleasant place to be.
And two, with so many crime-fiction series openers just waiting for one-one-thousandth of the attention that the Cole/Pike novels have gotten, why give a second chance to someone who so thoroughly shit the bed the first time? The second first chance was bad enough.
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 Acts.