FFB: Rhode Island Red by Charlotte Carter

carter_3_collage_1527285657After reading this fabulous write up on Charlotte Carter by Michael Gonzales, I knew I had to give her a try. Rhode Island Red arrived promptly — one advantage of Carter having a greater following in the UK than in the US, I guess.

41p84k7b6wl-sx160-sy160From the get-go this a book that will drag you along. With chapter titles looted from Thelonius Monk and a voice that’s both knowing, mordant and a little too hopeful, Nanette will keep you reading. I’m one of those readers for whom voice will keep me engaged in a way that clever plotting and intricate detail will not. Carter has a great skill for making the story jump into action right from the start , of filling in the life of the characters without ever giving way to boring exposition. Every one is so vivid through Nanette’s eyes — and so is the NYC that no longer exists, one that was just starting to be gentrified and was still full of life and art.

Nanette is the kind of character that offers richness for crime writing. Insatiably curious, sexy and confident, she’s also smart without always being wise. She has the habit of many clever people of assuming they’ll know when things are getting bad and that they’re always ahead of the game — and suffer doubly when they’re wrong because they ought to have known better. It’s to Carter’s credit that she shows us all the clues but being on Nanette’s side, we might just as well misinterpret them.

The mystery is tied up in cops, criminals and of course music. Nanette is musician, though she doesn’t think much of her abilities it is what she lives for. The uncanny lure of a melody is something she can’t resist. And like a lot of imaginative people, she has a tendency to believe what she wants to believe. Yet there’s a frank evaluation of contemporary racism that permeates the city — especially the police. The matter-of-fact way Nanette negotiates it chills. It’s a simple matter of life and death that she faces daily.

Why no one has optioned this for a film I don’t know. Her pal Aubrey alone should be enough to get some execs in a lather. Nanette is a great character with such a distinctive voice — I’m going to be reading more. I’ll leave you with one quote that took me by surprise, late in the novel. So steeped in jazz is this book, that Nanette pulling out some Satie, told me something — connected to her love for Paris, but also the complexity and wide-ranging curiosity she has. Never assume.

I put on some Erik Satie, for a change of pace from the Billie songs to commit suicide by, a change from the junk-sick Parker ballads and the post desolation Bill Evans stuff. It’s funny how heartbreaking Satie can be, and at the same time soothing, focusing, And then he’ll go off on one of those surrealist tangents, where he sounds like a spoiled brat having a tantrum, or the inside of a mad trolley conductor’s head. He was one weird looking man, Satie. I think I probably would have had a lot of fun with him.

Check out all the overlooked books at Patti’s blog.

Review: Patricia Highsmith’s A Dog’s Ransom

A Dog’s Ransom
Patricia Highsmith

Highsmith’s Ripley novels have a high profile which unfairly casts a shadow over some of her other works. A Dog’s Ransom is a peculiar gem in the same vein of sharply misanthropic works that swell her bibliography. The New York of this novel isn’t just gritty: it reeks.

The story begins with the top of the food chain: Edward Reynolds, his wife Greta and their little French poodle Lisa. Highsmith draws a portrait of the gentlemanly big house editor so specifically, you suspect she sketched him from a life model. They’ve just received another poison pen letter beginning, “I SUPPOSE YOU ARE PRETTY PLEASED WITH YOURSELF?” and sneering at their “fancy apartment” and “snob dog.” Greta wants to call the cops, but Ed would prefer not to think about things and sips his cocktail instead.

That overplays the class elements a bit, but that’s a key thread to the narrative: the “superior” life of Ed and Greta sparks ne’er –do-well Rowajinski’s loathing. Not that there are many he doesn’t hate; he’s got a busy little schedule of anonymous vitriol to spread in his poorly spelled missives. But it’s not enough: Rowajinski decides to kidnap and ransom Lisa. Highsmith sketches this lowlife character with great zeal. He nearly oozes off the page.

The kidnapping brings would be-social climber cop Clarence Duhamell into the orbit of these folks, whom he might not ever have met. He yearns for the better life he sees in Ed and Greta’s world. His impatience with the system and palpable loathing of Rowajinski short circuit his efforts to find justice, and his fellow police officers make things worse. Their contempt of this college boy cop shows in myriad ways, from deliberately mispronouncing his name to getting their own back on him when Rowajinski counter-accuses him of taking a bribe. The latter’s glee when he burns $500 to make sure it’s unaccountable hits like a punch in the gut.

You’ll need a unicorn chaser after this novel; it’s Highsmith at her Dostoyevskian best. The casual racism of the 1972 novel may well make folks wince, too. On the plus side, Clare’s hippie chick girl friend Marylyn provides a fascinating portrait of a woman of her times and some much needed comic relief, too. Right up to the end, you keep wondering just how things will turn out; good stuff.

See the roundup of overlooked books at Friday’s Forgotten Books over at Patti Abbott’s blog.