Homage to the Hardboiled Noir Mysteries of the Thirties and Forties Pulp Scene
May 6, 2009
This time last year I was hunched over my computer, immersed in the details of Rockaway's 2nd Annual Literary Arts Festival. I had to contact authors and publishers, plan who would be where during the course of the day, arrange for food and drink, ensure the facilities were ready for use, that we'd have an on-site bookseller, volunteers on the ground to set up and clean up afterwards, a parallel writing competition for school age Rockaway kids and, of course, that we publicized the whole shebang.
No, I didn't do it alone -- a whole team of folks, mostly from the Rockaway Music & Arts Council (our sponsor), did the real work. But I had the job of worrying that it all got done on time and of backstopping any gaps. This year, thankfully, that's someone else's job. Beset with my own book project (hey, a writer's gotta do some serious writing some time, doesn't he?), I was glad to pass the baton -- and glad for another, less salutary reason, too.
Many of last year's authors went away disappointed. Some enjoyed the chance to talk to folks but most found that our visitors were willing to buy food and drink and to listen to the panels. But they weren't interested in buying books! Unlike the '07 event, when Borders was our vendor and did a bang-up business, the '08 vendor, a mobile book seller who goes from book fair to book fair, wouldn't even talk to me by day's end.
At one point, I went over to one of the authors' tables where three poor souls were waiting in vain for readers to bring them books to sign. With nothing much to do, they were reduced to listlessly passing each other's books around to one another and making small talk. Mortified, I sat down across from them and, ultimately, shelled out $50 of my own for books. Still, I couldn't buy everyone's even if, at the end of the day, the vendor's sales staff told me I had been their biggest customer. What a come down compared to the over $3,000 in book sales logged by Borders in '07.
So, as you can imagine, I wasn't all that keen to reprise my role as event coordinator this year, even if I hadn't had my own book to work on (which, thankfully, I do). But I made a promise to some of those miserable looking authors on that day to read their books and review them if I liked them. (Naturally they didn't want me to bother, if I didn't!) Busy all year, I've let that commitment slip -- until now.
I recently picked up 23 Shades of Black by K. J. A. Wishnia who teaches English at a university on Long Island which I'd bought on that day and breezed through it. A mystery in the noir tradition (think Hammett's Sam Spade or Chandler's Philip Marlowe), Wishnia's hero (heroine really) is NYPD patrolwoman Filomena Buscarsela, a recent emigre from Ecuador trying to make a go of it on the mean streets of Manhattan circa the Reagan era. Taking its title from a painting by a down and out SoHo artist whose murder sets the plot in gear, the book places an updated female Marlowe smack in the middle of the seedy and angry street scene of the 1980's.
There the author never lets us forget the political arguments of the day, giving us a sarcastic and sometimes self-destructive (but always sympathetic) uniformed policewoman contending against the callous bigotry of her fellow officers (she's a Latina in a white boy's club, after all) and the larger insults of an American system she apparently disdains (despite the fact that she came here from her native Ecuador of her own volition -- go figure). A highly educated college girl, Buscarsela has found work as a New York City cop and aspires to pull herself out of the muck and mire of the uniformed force by making detective -- a rank she believes she is being denied because of her gender and outspokenness.
Amidst an array of assignments, Buscarsela stumbles onto an accidental death she recognizes as murder before anyone else does and bull-headedly begins her own off-hours investigation. Lurching through a series of mind numbing encounters with punk rockers and various coke sniffing, heroin shooting denizens of the still dilapidated failed New York City of the eighties, our detective wannabe gets herself drugged, drunk and nearly killed by a silencer-wielding assassin in an alcohol-befogged subway encounter, more dreamlike than real in its evocation of the dark, fuzzily-recalled drunken and drugged out escapades of Chandler's Marlowe.
Wishnia's own writing is sharp and evocative of the sights and sounds of the era though Officer Buscarsela often sounds more like an embittered middle class white college kid, enthralled with leftish cant, than the street smart Latina, trying to make a go of it in a rough world, we're given to believe she is. When not dousing herself with all sorts of mind numbing concoctions to forget her mistakes and disappointments, she's trying to nail an evil corporation that seems to own half the world and to be poisoning the rest.
Buscarsela's antagonist, when it isn't just about everyone she runs into -- from fellow cops to the Reagan administration heartlessly denying funds for afterschool programs to sustain its 'cynical' war on drugs – seems to be nothing less than the capitalist system itself, as personified by greedy, self-indulgent yuppies and their overweight corporate tycoon bosses preying on the rest of us.
It's a somewhat simplistic world view, to be sure, though one which Wishnia uses effectively to drive an interesting tale that evokes the seamy underside of 1980's New York while serving as backdrop for some interesting and colorful existential angst by the main character. Unfortunately the story wears a little thin two thirds of the way through as the denouement seems to almost dribble away with the de rigeuer final confrontation and the turning of the tables on our heroine, followed by a deus ex machina rescue that's a little too predictable. Indeed, Wishnia seems to enjoy the angst-ridden narrative of his central character way more than the mechanics of laying out and solving mysteries.
But on balance, this was a fine homage to the noir writers of the forties and a rich evocation of a now dated period in New York City's own recent history. Officer Filomena Buscarsela, lively and down-to-earth at the start, may have become almost a caricature of herself by the end but she keeps us hanging on right up to the final moment and her confrontation with the real villain of the piece.
The book's a great read if you like the noir genre -- and even if you don't. I especially enjoyed the crisply fresh narration and vivid rendering of a bygone New York I remember once having been part of.
Wishnia's novel, the first in the series, is available at virtual and non-virtual bookstores generally though, given its vintage, your best bet is probably from one of the on-line booksellers like amazon.com, bn.com, etc.
Stu Mirsky is a writer and former New York City bureaucrat. He's the author of The King of Vinland's Saga, an historical novel about Vikings in North America, and A Raft on the River, the true story of a fifteen year old girl's struggle to survive Nazi occupation in eastern Poland during World War II.
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