Thinking about books
By David Marshall
July 1, 2012
One of the perks of reviewing is that I get to read the work of many writers I’ve never heard of. Even at my advanced age, it’s actually fun to add new “persons of interest” to the Ten Most Wanted posters on my walls. So imagine my joy in picking up 23 Shades of Black by Kenneth Wishnia (PM Press, 2012). I read the title verso (doesn’t everyone) and discover this presumptuous author has included the words of the Tenth Psalm “Reprinted by permission of God.” This is auspicious and suggests we share the same world view. The introduction by the redoubtable Barbara D’Amato fills in the gaps in my knowledge (ask me about science fiction, fantasy and horror and I’m reasonably encyclopaedic, but American police procedurals are a relatively new territory for me). It seems our author grew tired of rejections and self-published this book in 1997. It was immediately shortlisted for both the Edgar Allan Poe Award and the Anthony Award. Which just goes to show that, sometimes, authors are an excellent judge of the quality of the work they produce and know more than the agents and publishers. Indeed, within ten pages, I’m hooked and sad that I’ve missed out on the four books in the series that have followed this.
So what’s so wonderful about this book? Welcome to the world of Filomena Buscarsela. Like many heroines in police procedurals, she’s the eternal victim in the unrelenting world of aggressive sexual harassment. Just as one example, they send her out on rape patrol to walk the park in the hope she will lure out a predator male. Two police officers are supposedly seconds away, ready to rush in to arrest the perp the moment they hear the attack over the wire she’s carrying. Except all the male officers in this particular part of New York have been betting on whether she will defend herself or be raped. This leads to delays in her rescuers’ arrival. Ah, such are the pranks officers play on each other. For all involved, it’s just one laugh after another.
Mentioning laughs brings me to the tone of the book. You might think from the rape jape that this is a dark book whereas it’s actually “funny.” Yes, yes, I know I’ve been harping on about the hole in my head after the humour lobotomy, but I really did find passages in this book amusing. There’s a world-weary wit about the way our first-person heroine describes the crass awfulness of the world around her. In part, this comes from her background. She’s arrived in the US from Ecuador having grown up under the military juntas. We now find her in the 1980s when President Reagan is the Man in Charge, struggling to overcome discrimination and make it into the ranks of the detectives. Except, as mentioned, everything that can go wrong with this ambition does go wrong. This leaves her with a dilemma. She can either subside with whatever grace she can muster and live a “quiet life” as the butt of everyone’s jokes. Or she can go out of her way to investigate cases on her own and break through the glass ceiling by main force. Fortunately for us, she adopts the latter strategy and we soon see she would make a phenomenal detective. Except, of course, it all goes pear-shaped as the fix goes in to curtail her private investigation before it gets too dangerous for the “men at the top”. Suddenly, there’s an adverse drug test and questions being asked about the amount of alcohol she drinks. All these problems might go away if she would just accept “guidance.”
We have to remember this is a woman whose family died in Ecuador, who grew up seeing far worse corruption. Yet she wavers because, one-by-one, all the people who were supportive seem to lose their enthusiasm. Perhaps the big corporation she thinks is involved really can buy everyone else off. But not our Filomena. She’s going to get to the bottom of this even if it kills her. Which brings me to the ending which is not the usual feel-good effort that comes in the majority of mainstream books. All things considered, it feels pleasingly realistic. As a real-world comparison, Erin Brockovich might have won a settlement from Pacific Gas and Electric Company but, despite a non-related bankruptcy, it continues to trade. Fighting a large corporation as a white knight only rarely slays the corporate dragon and, more often than not, leaves the person in the can crisped when the flames lick around the armour. So it is we leave Filomena somewhat the worse for wear after her encounter with corporate power.
Kudos to PM Press for bringing this back into print. 23 Shades of Black, a reference to a painting she comes across during the course of her investigation, is a wonderful read and I unhesitatingly recommend it to everyone, regardless of their usual genre preferences.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.