Tuesday, January 11

Blues in the Night - Rochelle Krich

Molly Blume is a freelance reporter in LA - her beat is crime, not Hollywood, and she moonlights with some success as a true crime writer. When reading the daily dispatches, her eye, and then her imagination, is caught by one fact in an otherwise unremarkable report - a woman in a nightgown was the victim of an hit-and-run. Intrigued by the nightgown - at two in the morning, on Laurel Canyon? - Molly decides to investigate a little further.
Between the trauma and surgery, Lenore Saunders doesn't remember the accident. Drugged on antidepressants to begin with, when Molly visits she's disoriented and confuses her with someone named Nina; Lenore is preoccupied by Robbie, who's angry with her even though she's sorry. Interest further piqued, Molly digs deeper, but before she gets anywhere Lenore is found dead in the hospital, apparently by her own hand. Molly, however, suspects foul play.
The first in what is evidently a series, Blues in the Night is well crafted - with only one appearance of Lenore in the flesh, she is primarily portrayed through the lenses of those who knew her, and Molly's psychological autopsy. Molly discovers Lenore's tragic past, the cause of her estrangement form the husband she loved, and an increasingly sinister picture emerges. But which Lenore is the right one - injured, damaged innocent, or conniving, predatory schemer?
This aspect of Blues in the Night is particularly compelling, in part because of its controversial subject - Lenore was charged with the murder of her infant son, and found not guilty because of post-natal psychosis, but the prosecutor believes she was faking, and suspects her therapists came to the same conclusion after he testified on Lenore's behalf. It's also fascinating to see the changing images of Lenore, as Molly works through new evidence, weighing the validity of disparate sources and slivers of information.
I was less impressed with Molly, however. I think this was in part because of the somewhat ponderous interweaving of her Judaism into the text. This surprised me, because I am very interested in Judaism, particularly the more Orthodox variety practiced by Molly, and some of my favourite authors have increased my interest and my knowledge of the topic through a similar marrying of characters of faith with mystery novels - Kellerman is a perfect example of this done seamlessly, so the faith and the character and the direction of the plot are inseparable. In Blues in the Night, however, many of the details seem forced, particularly the translations:
Bubbie G calls Edie a a bren (a dynamo) and Mindy, five-eight,a hoicheh (tall) and a kleiegeh (clever). Liora is a neshomeleh, a sweetheart. Judah is a lamden, an erudite person. Noah is a brillyant, a diamond, and Joey a mazik, a rascal... I'm a kochleffl, a busybody, as if you didn't know, but I'm also a lebedikeh, a lovely one. Ron is a choleryeh ( accent on the second syllable), which is the Yiddish for 'cholera."
In typing this I realise that part of my irritation is that it feels clunky and added on, but part is also that Krich is using these terms as characterisation for Molly's family - Ron is Molly's ex-husband and Bubbie G is her grandmother, while everyone else is a sibling, and the whole is a paragraph of tell don't show.
There's a surfeit of metaphor and analogy - "every time I thought I had it figured out, it fell apart in my head like a meringue" - and a paucity of detail in Molly's significant history. We know why she and her husband divorced, and we know her best friend was killed when Molly was a teen, causing her to lose her faith, but we know nothing about that time except her reaction, nor why she decided to embrace religion once more.
Renewing a romantic relationship with an ex-turned-rabbi, Molly is late for a dinner date, loses track of time, picks a fight, lies, and won't leave it alone. Instead of having any sympathy I found it all disrespectful (of Zack as a man, not a rabbi), and irritatingly inexplicable. This wasn't helped by the way the scene ended:
Romance is like a soufflé - delicate, light, magical. I'd poked a hole in it, and once collapsed, no amount of air would revive it.

Chapter forty-one opens with Molly reflecting on the difficulty of dealing with real life in comparison with writing crime fiction:
you can go back before the book's in print and change things you don't like, things that don't work. You made a character to old, too nasty, or too nice?Change it. You don't like the dialogue on page 127, or the facts of a case, or a clue you planted, or the way characters behave or interact or dress? Change it. You can change it all. It's just words on a computer screen or paper.
But I wasn't writing crime fiction, I was writing about real events and real people whose actions and words were inconsistent. And I couldn't go back and change anything. Not words I'd heard from those who had no reason to lie, but words in court transcripts. I was writing true crime and was stuck with characters who wouldn't ring true. My editor wouldn't buy them. I didn't buy them either.
Molly then points out the inconsistencies between various characters' actions and their personalities, but for me this section served only to underscore that this is a novel, wholly created. And while this section is pivotal to Molly uncovering the truth about Lenore, it's the self-conscious metafictional aspect that stayed with me. While I enjoy this when well done (I thoroughly enjoyed the film Stranger Than Fiction, and was absorbed by my first encounter with metafiction, Calvino's renown If on a Winter's Night a Traveler), this was just coy and clumsy.
Surprisingly, this is not to say I didn't enjoy Blues in the Night - multiply published prior to this 2002 release, the novel feels simultaneously like the work of a developing writer (the rough edges, clunky patches, exposition and telling) and an established one (primarily the complicated and rewarding mystery). I'm interested in where Molly (and Zach) is going, and interested to see if the cultural and religious elements are more deftly incorporated in the rest of the series, of which Blues in the Night is the first. - Alex

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