on 29 August 2010
This is a home-front story set in the New York of 1943. Back in 1940, Faye Quick had been hired as a secretary for a one-man PI agency. Now, while her boss is in uniform, Faye is keeping the business going. It's the era of the hard-boiled detective and Faye, to her own surprise as much as anybody's, fits in just fine.
Refreshingly, and quite unlike two books on which I've commented recently, author Sandra Scoppettone creates a convincing mid-War New York. But the New York she creates is not, I think, the one that actually existed on the Hudson River. No, her New York is the one that appeared in glorious black-and-white in double features on the screens of neighborhood Bijous, Rialtos and Roxies right across the continent.
Imagine PI Faye Quick as a young Joan Blondell. Here is the way she speaks:
"Yeah, it was hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk. I never could understand why people said that. Did somebody fry one then eat it? Who'd wanna eat a fried egg from the sidewalk? Especially in a city like New York. Maybe I'd try it. Not the eating part, the frying. But then people would think I was more a screwball than they did already....
"I'd had two murders since last spring, solved them both. The first one was prime and it got a lotta attention in the fish wrapper, so I had a bunch of clients for a while. Just cause people saw my name in the paper they figured I was the best (which I might be) and they hired me for everything from finding a dog to solving another murder. Not bad for a twenty-six-year-old gal from Newark, New Jersey."
Faye's words may or may not reflect the speech patterns of New York's Forty-third Street between Seventh and Eighth--her office address--but they are absolutely, authentically pure examples of the brassy, RKO B-picture, big city, tough girl, sub-dialect of the American language. That is the way Blondell talked, the young Lucille Ball, too, and even Ginger Rogers (before Astaire polished off her rough edges.) I love it all.
I think Scoppettone loves it and Hollywood, too. In fact, I suspect that she wrote this book with a big grin on her face. How could she not, considering the names she chose for her characters? Here is a partial list: Arden, Cagney, Collier, Cooper, Cummings, Davis, Duff, Duryea, Glenn, Grahame, Jory, Kilbride, Ladd, Lake, Lupino, Mostel, Powell, Ritter, Ryan, Sidney, Stanwyck, Swanson, Turner and Widmark. If those names mean nothing to you, then rush to your TV set, strap yourself in, and hunker down for a month of remedial study with the Turner Classic Movies--or at the very least, wear a hair shirt during your next visit to your local video store.
The mystery of this book, such as it is, is straightforward and pitched appropriately at the level to be found in the B-movies of the period. The sly Scoppettone (perhaps with a twisted little grin) is fully aware that we in our time are a little more sensitized to some things than Faye Quick might have been in 1943, so we readers are led to draw certain conclusions before Faye does. Part of the amusement of the book arises from wondering when and how she'll catch up.
This is a breezy, brassy book that honorably upholds the traditions of its models from the 1940s. It is true to itself and successful on its own terms. That justifies five stars as far as I am concerned.