Rating: 2.75 stars
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On a June night in 1925, Anna Reesmer’s husband is murdered in his own driveway. His wife, the only witness, tells the police the murder was committed by a man and a woman who robbed them, smiled as they killed her husband, and then stole their car. A week and a half later, after having dragged in ten suspects before the widow — each of whom Anna claims is the murderer, each of whom has a rock solid alibi — the police, following an anonymous tip, arrest Norma West. She, too, is identified by the grieving widow, but unlike all the many women before, Norma has no alibi.
What follows is a circus, made only more chaotic and captivating when Norma’s jailers notice her five-o’clock shadow. Norma’s story is splashed over the papers, in large part to the tabloid reporter Our Princess Pauline — a pseudonym used by a junior reporter, Paul Sammy. Norma is defended by none other than Victor Winchester, movie star handsome and known for his work in freeing sex workers, accepting at most a kiss on the cheek (and a generous gift from their pimps in the form of cash.)
Norma, who has worked all her life singing in clubs, always looking for a little more fame, has found it. Her ten minutes in the spotlight have come.
It’s obvious by the rating of this book that I didn’t quite care for it. Part of that is due to the writing, which felt distant and cold, almost clinical in its approach. I’m not familiar with books written in the 1920s, so I can’t say if the author is trying to replicate the style of those pulp novels, or if this is simply their own personal style; either way, I found myself unable to connect to and enjoy the style the author chose to use. There is a great deal of not so much head-hopping as character hopping, where the story will focus for a moment on one character, telling us their thoughts and their actions, before moving on to the next. And it’s very heavy on the telling. For example, instead of seeing the trial unfold, much of it is read from newspaper clippings and exposition. This feels like a narration, not a story, and the style is not one that worked for me. I need to be able to invest more into the story, into the characters.
The story itself felt disjointed, like a scattering of scenes put together in a vague order. There’s a great deal of repetition, characters re-stating what was just said, or exposition re-telling the events that were already told in a previous chapter. This book doesn’t take place chronologically, with exposition-laden flashbacks telling us about characters that felt somewhat random, to me. I didn’t feel like the story was well crafted, with so many breaks in the flow or tension of a scene to tell, yet again, what a character was thinking or feeling when it had no real impact on the actual story. In many cases, it felt like the story kept getting derailed by the need to comment on random details about inconsequential things. For example, Norma’s husband, Frankie. We are told twice that he met Norma when he approached her, wanting to buy the services of two men she was pimping out. Once is to let us know it’s how they met, and the second time later in the book with more detail to let us know, for certain, that Frank was both gay, interested in more masculine men, and that that’s how they met. The second time, while more fleshed out, felt unnecessary as it gave no further importance, meaning, or character development to Frankie. It just showed, again, that Norma worked as a pimp and that Frankie rented out two of her workers.
I don’t mind a non-linear story, and I don’t mind books that are heavier on style than substance, but I felt like this book was all style tying together scenes, rather than a story being told with this style. And none of it was helped by the fact that I didn’t see or feel any personality from any of the characters. Norma is by turns painted as shrill, coy, charming, vulgar, smart, stupid, brazen, and petty. Paul, the newspaper reporter, feels like he has no personality. Victor, who we’re told is so handsome, so gloriously handsome that everyone wants to have him or be had by him, shows up three or so times in the book, and has a predilection for underage boys (including the “jail bait” aged boy he sees at the club that he later decides to go pick up at the end of the book as a reward for himself). Every character felt more like an example in a morality play, with men being manly, “pansies” being there for laughs, women being weak and hysterical, and everyone being mildly unpleasant to read about, while at the same time having almost no discernible personality. There’s also a thread of misogyny working its way through the book that I found off putting. Yes, this book takes place in the 1920s and people had a certain opinion on what a woman should be, how they should act, and talk and be treated … but every single character seems to have the same indifferent contempt towards women.
Just for clarity, to the best of my understanding from how she is presented in this story, I took Norma to be genderqueer or gender fluid, not that those terms were known or used in the mid-1920s. Norma, the name she goes by through much of the book, often identifies as a woman and lives much of her life as a woman. She does use she/her pronouns for herself in the book, and wears mostly traditionally female clothing (though she has masculine clothing in her wardrobe). But when asked if she is a woman, she says no, she’s all man. While this could just be to get more clicks of the camera and laughs from the reporters, at another point in the book Norma considers the possibility of living as a man rather than a woman. Norma is married, as a woman, to her husband Frank, but is married as a man to another woman.
The writing isn’t bad, for all that I struggled with the style, and it’s clear the author has done their research into the time period. The language, the clothes, the jokes, and references were all on point. When the book turned to something time period related — typewriters, clubs, societal matters — everything had more focus and was more interesting. But then the characters showed up and the endless exposition. I would be interested to read some of this author’s non-fiction work, but as for this book, I don’t recommend it. The story feels disjointed and confusing, the characters aren’t there at all, and I just didn’t have an enjoyable time reading it. That said, the cover art is gorgeous.