Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Lauren Henderson: Tart City Noir

As most regular readers of The Cabinet know, I grew up reading mysteries. Beginning with Peggy Parrish and Nancy Drew, then on to Ellen Raskin and Agatha Christie, subsequently reading a stack of P.D. James, Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky in my late teens. In my 20s, I read all of Dorothy L. Sayers (oh, what a genius she is!), and then I went all hard boiled, reading all of Hammett, Cain, Chandler and Ellroy. But Sayers aside, I read very few actual mysteries. Most of what I saw on the shelves looked dull and middle aged. The genre seemed tired.

Then, In the 90s, the best thing happened. Seemingly at once, a number of women began writing mysteries that were fresh, modern - young. Not only the books' content, but the covers and the artwork seemed new. More than any other genre, mysteries are rooted most firmly in the actual world and the nuts and bolts aspects of life, dealing as they do with money and the law and wills and poison and politics and greed and family. Because of this, many mysteries have also functioned as social comedies, so the milieu is awfully important.

So, at one point in the mid-late 90s, I was browsing in the mystery section of the bookstore when I came across Lauren Henderson's Black Rubber Dress. It's the third in her Sam Jones mystery series and the first to be published in the US. There are seven books in the series and they really do typify a new direction that mysteries began to take in the previous decade. That said, I think this trend in mysteries is impossible to talk about without also bringing up the much maligned chick lit. I'll save an in depth discussion of this for another day (Fuzzy Bastard and I had a long, long conversation about this in the comments section of one of my Twilight posts a while ago), but leaving all snarky mocking aside (which, for the record, makes me livid), I think these books were necessary. Pre-Bridget Jones's Diary, there were very few books being written in which ordinary, modern women could see themselves. What I don't think is talked about enough - and is often the failing of the movie adaptions of these books - is that they are as much about career as romance, and many, many women want to read about both (and vampires, apparently, but that too is a discussion for another day).

I adore Henderson's Sam Jones books. The last one, Pretty Boy, appeared almost ten years ago, and though it left us hanging in terms of the status of Sam's relationship with dandyish, class jumping actor, Hugo, it seems as if it will be the last. Sam Jones is a twenty-something metal sculptor who lives in a warehouse studio in a run down part of London (more South Bronx than Williamsburg). Early in the series she subsidized her art by working in a gym as a personal trainer, most of her friends are writers or actors or work in media. Henderson is a really sharp writer who, like most Brits, is very finely attuned to the niceties of class. She has also clearly read as many mysteries as I have. She references Wimsey and Harriet in Sam and Hugo's courtship, and makes several incredibly obscure Agatha Christie references. She also clearly delights in the old fashioned tradition of the amateur sleuth. It's an absurd device, and she knows it. I mean, no one wanders about their life stumbling into corpses at the pace of about one a year. In an interview she referred to Sam Jones once as "Miss Marple's decadent descendant".

Of particular interest to my readers, might be Freeze My Margarita (which follows Black Rubber Dress), which aside from it being a really well worked out mystery, and enormously entertaining, it is also set in the midst of a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Sam is hired to make some set pieces for the show, and though the theater seems shockingly well-subsidized from the American point of view, the production itself, and her thoughts on the play are extremely smart. It's the only modern novel I've read that possesses a Slings and Arrows level of realism in portraying theater.

So, the Sam Jones series ends on a bittersweet note: the mystery is solved, but the villain isn't who we want it to be and Sam and Hugo are on the outs. I suppose that's where it will remain forever. But Lauren Henderson hasn't been idle. Since then she's come out with three chick lit books. I've read two (My Lurid Past and Exes Anonymous), and they were... okay, but I would have preferred some new mysteries, but that, of course, is my problem, not hers. I did find them to be pretty unputdownable. And all of her female heroines possess a hard edge that I find really appealing.

Then, in 2008, oh frabjous day, she began a new mystery series with Kiss Me Kill Me, this time for young adults. The protagonist is sixteen year old Scarlett Wakefield, a student at an extremely posh girls school in London. She, however, is not a part of the ulta-exclusive, fashionable group of girls who form the ruling clique of the school. She spends most of her time doing gymnastics and hanging out with her two best friends. At first, I thought the book would be a sort of London-based Gossip Girl with added mystery value, but that turns out to not be the case. Scarlett ditches her real friends after being invited to one of the cool girl's party. While there, she kisses the boy of her dreams, and he dies immediately in her arms, completely ruining her first kiss. The press dubs her "The Kiss of Death Girl" and she is thrown out of school because of all the unwelcome tabloid attention. It's around this time we discover that Scarlett, while not particularly popular at her school, is in fact extremely posh. She was orphaned at a very young age and has been shuffled around a bit between various relatives. Her father was a baron, and her grandmother, Lady Wakefield, has turned their family seat into an academically rigorous girl's school.

Scarlett spends the first two books, which really do need to be read in conjunction with each other, solving the mystery of the death of Dan McAndrews, the boy she kissed. I enjoyed the second book, Kisses and Lies, far more than the first. It felt tighter and better thought out and everything was resolved at the end. There was so much left hanging at the end of Kiss Me Kill me, I found it maddening. Kisses and Lies is divided into two parts, each one a take on a classic mystery genre. The first takes place at Wakefield Hall, where Scarlett is attending school under the chilly and watchful eye of her grandmother. Boarding school mysteries are classics of children's literature, Enid Blyton's series and the Dana Girls Mysteries being the most famous (the Harry Potter books being the most recent offerings). Scarlett's discoveries eventually lead her to a castle in Scotland, where the book morphs into a quasi-traditional country house mystery in the best Christie tradition. The dénouement is completely satisfying.

The third book, Kiss in the Dark, is the first of another pairing, Kiss Me Goodbye will complete the series (I hope. I was unable to find a release date). In this book, Henderson also puts a very young modern spin on common mystery tropes. Scarlett stumbles upon the murdered corpse of Wakefield Hall's groundsman - and the father of Scarlett's boyfriend. This murder is satisfactorily solved, and though the tone is light, larger issues loom. The twin specters of race and class are increasingly in the forefront. As Scarlett looks deeper into the current mystery, questions about her parent's death start to emerge. This will likely be the thread that continues on to the next book.

Years ago, Henderson used to run a website with Stella Duffy called Tart City which championed and promoted young, female detective fiction writers they dubbed Tart Noir. The site itself is no longer being updated, but the message boards happily still live. In 2002 the two co-edited a Tart Noir anthology. These days, most of the women associated with Tart Noir are no longer writing mysteries for adults. Maybe the market shifted, or perhaps they got tired of writing them. I'm hoping The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo will revive interest and another wave of younger, edgy mysteries will come our way.

No comments: