Broken River Books
William Boyle’s Gravesend is a pitch-perfect depiction of the titular Brooklyn neighborhood, one where Italian, Irish, and Russian-Americans still hold sway, and where hipsterism and hip-hop are foreign ideals that infect the wayward children of a dying generation. It’s almost a cliché that authors live in Brooklyn now, but few of the current crop have written about that overpriced borough in the way native son Boyle does.
The plot is almost secondary: Conway D’Innocenzio thinks he wants revenge on Ray Boy Calabrese for a gay-bashing that led to the death of Conway’s brother. Ray Boy, for his part, is happy to die—the life of a street tough and neighborhood hero disgusts him now. Meanwhile, Ray Boy’s nephew Eugene wants to forget about Catholic School and his limp, and relive Ray Boy’s glory days. He’s never been out of the neighborhood, and when he heads to Ray Boy’s hideout in Rockland County, he’s terrified of the deer, and the ticks. Then there’s wannabe actress Alessandra Biagini, back in town after being spit out by Los Angeles. In the neighborhood she is a star, albeit a wandering one all the boys long to orbit.
Despite the immigrant success story—houses owned, children raised, churches attended weekly—that Gravesend is supposed to be, there is plenty of blood. The gunplay is an afterthought; what a more lurid novel would make a climax, Boyle passes over in a sentence, because the main character in this novel isn’t Ray Boy or Conway, but working-class immigrant Brooklyn itself. —NM
Detective Inspector Tony McLean is a man. There can be no doubt of that. He drinks beer and malt whiskey. He doesn’t remember women’s names, unless they’re victims of a crime, or they work for him. (Even then, it’s a toss-up.) He leaves most conversations by dropping a darkly comedic one-liner. He has an encounter with his love interest where she slaps him across the face and then draws him into a kiss… after which he actually thinks the thought, “But that was women for you, wasn’t it?” (423) And when confronted with a transwoman, he takes care to remind her that she is, in his opinion, also a man.
So what is a man like Detective Inspector Tony McLean to do when assigned a bizarre cold case? Well, given his lawful good alignment, and the predictable nature of Natural Causes, “everything he can,” of course.
The crime is the ritual slaying of an unidentified girl, discovered sixty years after the murder was committed. She was crucified, her body sliced open, her organs removed. She was raped (of course). A circle was drawn around her, and yet stranger symbols. Some people—like the lazy, sloppy Chief Inspector Duguid, McLean’s nemesis—would leave well enough alone. After all, her killer is probably dead by now. But DI McLean is rewarded for his diligence, for the more he digs, the more he uncovers connections indicating that this old case might have something to do with a more current one—a series of older gentlemen who are being gruesomely murdered one by one, each with an organ removed by his killer. It may also have something to do with the devil…
If the above set-up sounds yawn-producingly generic, you have deduced matters more quickly than Detective Inspector Tony McLean, and with less running around.
Recommended for: Your uncle who loves Satanic Panic-era horror cinema and was disappointed when it turned out that albino from The DaVinci Code wasn’t a demon. —MT
Mother-In-Law Review Corner:
Isabella Allende is a popular literary writer who has been publishing successful novels and auto-biographical books since 1985.
Ripper is her first detective novel, and its publication this year has generated a lot of publicity, not entirely of the kind she and her publisher had hoped for. The controversy started when Allende gave an interview on NPR during which she explained that she was not a fan of detective fiction, which she herself did not regularly read. Nevertheless, she’d completed a novel in the detective genre, for which she’d prepared by reading a number of books from the best-seller lists. She has since apologized for her words, saying that she had been joking. It’s indeed true that during the original interview she said: “…the book is tongue in cheek… I will take the genre, write a mystery that is faithful to the formula and to what the readers expect, but it is a joke.”
Nevertheless, many detective fiction buffs felt affronted by her interview, presumably by a perceived air of condescension, by the implication that Allende thought less of detective fiction than of the literary historical and contemporary novels which she usually writes. Her comments seemed to them to imply that detective fiction was easier to write, that she could easily pull off the writing of such a novel (while still maintaining some distance and disdain) and therefore that the readers of detective fiction were less discerning, less perceptive, more easily satisfied than those of mainstream literary fiction. So incensed were the fans that the Allende networks and blogs filled up with protest, and a Houston book store specializing in detective fiction which had ordered multiple signed advance copies returned the books. Her apology was disregarded.
Like Allende, I came to read mysteries having first read the fiction of authors such as George Eliot, Virginia Wolf, Scott Fitzgerald, Paul Scott, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and Iris Murdoch. I first searched out detective fiction after hearing a talk by the British literary critic and intellectual Marghanita Laski, a major fan of the genre, and writer of a weekly column of detective-fiction-criticism in the BBC magazine, The Listener (sadly no longer in existence). Since then, I’ve enjoyed certain crime authors very much indeed and recognize, as goes without saying really, that their skills are in no way inferior to those of the so called literary fiction novelists, and that the distinctions and divisions between different genres of fiction is false if related to quality, rather than to subject matter. There are simply good novels and bad novels. Or, as George Orwell wrote more subtly, in his essay “Good Bad Books” (first published in Tribune on 2 November 1945), a “good bad book” is “the kind of book that has no literary pretensions but which remains readable when more serious productions have perished.” Orwell concludes: “I would back Uncle Tom’s Cabin to outlive the complete works of Virginia Woolf or George Moore, though I know of no strictly literary test which would show where the superiority lies.”
The news of the Ripper mini-scandal reached me before I started to read the book and out of curiosity, I listened to the interview. I didn’t find it offensive, for I gave Allende the benefit of the doubt; after all, she was live on the radio, was presumably just being light and funny, and didn’t realize the offense her words might give. The part that took me aback a little was that Allende claimed to have gone to the best seller lists to study the craft of writing detective fiction. Though good books occasionally end up on those lists, bestselling novels are frequently books that are read only once, say on a flight or train journey, and rarely pass the test of time. Why would Allende, with her unlimited resources, living in the Bay Area with its dozens of outstanding book stores, not have searched out the classics of the genre? A good book seller (or indeed a quck search on the computer) could have pointed her towards any of the following greats who are favorites of mine (as well as to many others): Wilkie Collins, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Elizabeth George, John Harvey, Patricia Highsmith, H.R. Keating, Edgar Allen Poe, Peter Robinson, Georges Simenon. However, I have now concluded that Allende was indeed talking lightly and self-deprecatingly when she made that statement, and that she did research the genre more thoroughly than she originally implied. In her apology she explains: “Sometimes my humor doesn’t come through. [I] …was trying to be self-deprecating.”
It was against this background that I came to Ripper, somewhat well-disposed because of my affection for some of her earlier books, not put off by any assumption that she was condescending, and determined to judge the book strictly on its merits: Was I fully engaged? Was I intrigued by the mystery, and unable to put the book down? Did I find characters whom I enjoyed reading about, and cared about because they seemed real? Did clumsy writing get between me and the plot?
At first I was surprised by the writing. A central character, Indiana, is “a tall, voluptuous blond… with the looks of an inflatable doll.” Wouldn’t you be taken aback by such a retrograde sentiment and comparison from a high school sophomore, let alone a sophisticated novelist? Indeed, can you take seriously the writer of such a sentence? And what do you make of the following scene, when Indiana is wined and dined in a luxurious hotel by her lover:
“Ah, the perfumed water, the vast cotton towels, the perfectly chilled wine, the exquisite food, the loving caresses. … Once, after they had watched Cleopatra on television… she mentioned that the best thing in the movie was Cleopatra bathing in milk. Alan had leaped out of bed… and reappeared half an hour later… carrying three boxes of powdered milk that he emptied into the Jacuzzi so that she could bathe like a Hollywood pharaoh.”
Isn’t powdered milk irredeemably tacky in this context? But hey! This is by way of being Allende’s light hearted pastiche of the genre. She is sending up pulp fiction. And in doing so she creates a book in which there is much to enjoy. The characters are fun. There’s Amanda (Indiana’s daughter) whose lack of composure while attending her first rave-style party, where she finds herself completely out of her depths, is well-observed. (Until she remembers that she is in the fortunate and exceptional position of having a Navy SEAL, Ryan, as a best friend, who, along with his super militarily-trained dog, and his professor friend, who was once the member of a Uruguayan terrorist group, she can call upon for help.)
Allende’s fantasy is full of episodes of this kind. Many incidents are hardly believable, but the Bay Area’s locations and its New-Age culture is colorfully drawn all adds up to an enjoyable, fanciful, happy-go-lucky read. The author has certainly done extensive research and learned a great deal about serial killers, methods of execution, forensics, Navy SEALs, night goggles and so on. Towards the end there is some very real tension and suspense.
Though this book may appeal more to fans of Allende’s previous books than to those who read mainly thrillers, Ripper is certainly “a book that has no literary pretensions but which remains readable when more serious productions [will] have perished.” —MF