Feisty Females/Accidental Sleuths:
2014 (NOLA) Feminist Crime Fiction
Albert, Susan Wittig. Death Come Quickly. New York: Berkley Prime Crime, 2014.
Barr, Nevada. Destroyer Angel. New York: Minotaur, 2014.
Lippman, Laura. After I’m Gone. New York: William Morrow, 2014.
The first part of 2014 saw the release of the nineteenth Anna Pigeon novel by Nevada Barr and the twenty-second China Bayles/Pecan Springs, Texas novel by Susan Wittig Albert. The two writers, although very different, share New Orleans and Gulf Coast affinities. Before moving to Texas to become Vice-Chancellor of San Marcos State University, Albert served as the Dean of Newcomb College at Tulane. After serving for several years as a Park Ranger in Mississippi, Nevada Barr now makes her home in the Crescent City.
These particular novels share more than most of the books in these dissimilar crime series. This is the first time that Barr has used a plant—a fungus—as the structural device in the mystery. That operational strategy is the key marker of the China Bayles’ series. The title of Barr’s book, Destroyer Angel, refers to the deadly Amanita mushroom. The title of Albert’s is Death Come Quickly. That is also a common name for Geranium robertianum, cranesbill or Herb Robert. European folk medicine and contemporary naturalist lore both identify the plant as a mosquito repellant. Its flower buds were associated with increased fertility and good luck. However, carrying the plant indoors was believed to dangerous, an invitation for death to follow. While the destroyer angel alludes to Pigeon’s relentless pursuit of her friends and their kidnappers and her decision to kill, it also becomes the literal tool for the ultimate and last revenge in the text. Death-come-quickly, in Albert’s text, also resonates with on several levels, serving as both threat (the name of the plant) and desire (“Muerta llega pronto, the title for a painting at the heart of the mystery). Albert’s prologue ends quite ominously with a twist on this theme. After the first victim is bludgeoned, “Death does not come quickly. When it finally comes, she is already gone (5).”
Barr’s book is an adrenaline rush at best, an improbable bust-em-up at worst. This reviewer was reminded of the rating system kept by Texas movie reviewer, Billy Bob at the Drive-In, the body injury and body counts are both so high, and the deaths are so spectacular. However, fans of the series will know that this tendency has been building in Barr’s series for a while. Track of the Cat, which introduced Anna Pigeon, had the heroine dislocate her shoulder on a cliff, re-set it herself while dangling over the precipice, and then go back out and reinjure it (after only a day or two in the hospital) in her avid pursuit of bad guys and justice. Devoted readers will also remember paraplegic tough-girl Heath Jarrod and her daughter Elizabeth who were introduced in Hard Truth.
Ironically, U.S. Park Ranger Pigeon is going on vacation, taking a camping trip in Minnesota with this pair and another mother/daughter pair when she falls into this kidnapping conspiracy. Jarrod and her daughter are helping rich scientist/ inventor Leah Hendricks test her new line of outdoor equipment for disabled outdoors-people.
While the kidnapping is a part of a murder-for-hire scheme, two of the four men who commit the crime enjoy their job and revel in cruelty, sadism, and depravity. The psychological study of their leader, “the Dude,” Charles Bagnold, provides a counterpoint to Barr’s treatment of Pigeon. He is highly intelligent, completely ruthless, and seemingly amoral. However, victims and readers find out at the end of the story that his involvement in this particular crime is about revenge and redemption rather than money.
Pigeon, who was away canoeing at the time of the assault on the camp, stalks the kidnappers and victims throughout a two-day journey. Her descent into primitivism as she attempts to save her friends is perhaps the book’s most interesting psychological angle. Jarrod’s aging dog, which Pigeon is able to rescue first, becomes her familiar. Dreadfully injured and desperate to save themselves, the two cross over to wildness. They howl like/as wolves. They seek to destroy. Through this motif, Barr attempts to explore not the thin line between law and criminality, but the area outside those safeguards, the question of evil’s existence and its perversion of both human and natural order and morality. (This seems to be a propensity—started perhaps in Hard Truth and intensified after Katrina in the Anna Pigeon novel Burn and in the stand-alone text 13 1/2.)
Ultimately, the “[t]wo teenaged girls, a slightly mad scientist, a paraplegic,...an old dog,” (33) and Anna Pigeon prevail, but their seemingly impossible trek through a Minnesota national forest is no picnic for the reader either.
Albert’s book is believable. While she does not shy away from emotional depths and human depravity, those elements shape the plot-line and shadow the story; in Barr’s text, they dominate and ultimately overwhelm it.
In Albert’s Death Come Quickly, there are depraved and desperate individuals, but Wittig is able to render and examine these human propensities without turning the story into an echo of Eastwood’s Dirty Harry films. Unlike the explosive outbreaks crime in murder Barr’s series, the crime in Wittig’s Pecan Springs is intertwined with the ordinary—even the banal: an inspector takes a little bribe; his secretary knows about it but believes that the good he does in the community outweighs the wrong.
Such examination of the interplay of good and evil in ordinary times and places is Wittig’s forte. In fact, one of the most likable features of Wittig’s series is the wholesomeness of the small central Texas college town, Pecan Springs (where life is not “simple,” but still “definitely slower and sweeter,” p. 209), and its cast of regular characters; and this text, like its precursors, seeks to restore that essential goodness after the rupture of unlawful activity.
Albert’s heroine does not seek out wrongdoing. As in all of the China’s stories, crime finds her. When her friend is mugged in a mall parking lot—and later dies of the injuries—China starts putting two and two together. When one of the professor’s students is attacked the equation seems clear. The crimes are related, and the crux/connecting point of both is a documentary about an unsolved death some twenty years before. A current homicide, two cold cases, and a case of art fraud are solved by the end of the novel.
Throughout the crime story, China’s family and friends continue to build their community/ies and support individual growth and change. As in Barr’s Destroyer Angel and Lippman’s After I’m Gone, the meaning of motherhood and maternal bonds are explored. Wittig also delineates the practical problems of women who attempt to balance time and attention to spouse and children and to juggle career and family. In this story, for instance, tough police chief Sheila Dawson becomes pregnant, and with the son Bayles acquired via her husband Mike McQuaid heading off to college, McQuaid teases Bayles that maybe they should start a family in the nursery.
The novel does end happily with the restoration of civic peace, family concord, and a smart discussion of the merits of justice and virtue at the town’s “[d]own-home to the max” (279) Beans’ Bar-be-que. Of course, readers are given (as always) some lagniappe in the recipes from cast of characters offered as appendices to the novel.
Laura Lippman, who is part-time resident of New Orleans, and whose husband, David Simon, co-created the critically acclaimed television series Treme, also belongs in the circle of Crescent City feminist writers. Her most recent novel, After I’m Gone, traces the improbable feminist development of a fifties beauty queen, Bambi Gottschalk, who, with only a high school education, marries Felix Brewer for both love and money and loses both when her husband flees the country to avoid prosecution for illicit business operations.
Lippman’s heroine finds strength and redemption—and ultimate success—in her daily struggle to raise three daughters in the luxury to which they’ve become accustomed without the money necessary to do so. Rather than painting the character as a poser and hanger-on, Lippman develops a resilient and courageous character who keeps on keeping on in an unforgiving and judgmental society. In order to do this, Lippman traces Bambi Brewer’s story over a sixty year period, from 1959 to 2012. There is never a dull moment or a misplaced word. Each daughter (Rachel, Linda, and Michelle), the mistress (Julie Saxony), and the wife—as well as her friends and so-called friends—are beautifully and believably fashioned.
The explorations of marriage and mother-daughter/ female sibling relationships are penetrating and razor-sharp. In fact, this reviewer would argue that the desertion of the Felix Brewster and the death of his mistress (ten years later), which set-up the admittedly well-wrought detective plot are actually pretexts to develop psychological novel in the manner of Alice Hoffman and an intricate family portrait that offers an piercing and probing exploration of Jewish family life and mid-to late twentieth and early twenty-first century middle/upper class Baltimore society.
Like both Barr and Albert, Lippman uses an emblem, in this case, the Oriole’s song, “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me,” to set up the novel’s plot, to title the chapters, and to serve as a motif throughout the text.
Reviewed by M. L. Byrd
M. L. Byrd, founding editor of the NOLA DIASPORA, knows what it means to miss New Orleans. She is delighted to add reviewing to her NOLA DIASPORA duties!