“That ain’t the way real detectives do things”: the Amateur Lady Detectives of Joelle Charbonneau and Hilary Davidson
Kate Horsley & Lee Horsley, Lancaster University
Joelle Charbonneau’s and Hilary Davidson’s excellent debut novels make inventive, suspenseful, enjoyable use of one of the all-time favourite character types of classic detective fiction – the female protagonist who would never, in her wildest dreams, have imagined having to roll up her sleeves to hunt down dangerous criminals.
Rebecca Robbins (Charbonneau’s Skating Around the Law) and Lily Moore (Davidson’s The Damage Done) are successfully employed in quite different walks of life – Rebecca as a mortgage broker in Chicago, Lily as a travel writer in Spain. But both return to places full of memories and awkward problems, not the least of which are the dead bodies that turn up in locations for which they feel responsible: the town handyman is found dead with his head in the toilet of the roller rink Rebecca has inherited from her mother; and a strange woman is found dead in the bath of the New York apartment for which Lily has been paying the rent so that her drug-addict sister would have a place to live.
The protagonists understandably feel compelled to investigate. They must try to get to the bottom of events which seem inextricably bound up with their own lives, decisions and relationships. It is a role they are only equipped for by their intelligence, thoroughness and a kind of stubborn commitment to seeing things through to the end no matter how many people warn them of the risks they are taking.
In tone and setting, Skating Around the Law and The Damage Done are very different novels. Charbonneau’s novel is light and funny, and the crime tackled by her protagonist is a small-scale, small town mystery sustained by a cast of eccentric characters and just enough secrets to create a plentiful supply of false leads. Davidson’s novel, which takes place mainly in New York, is a much more violent and convoluted mystery, and, with its pervasive sense of guilt and moral darkness, it is closer to the world of noir. But for all their differences, both writers secure the reader’s involvement by deploying the strategies of the classic whodunit: the truth is hidden but accessible to the reader; disguise, distraction and other devices help to conceal the solution to the mystery; events are complicated and red herrings multiply, until everything at last falls neatly into place.
Set in the small town of Indian Falls, Charbonneau’s novel is in essential respects close to the Golden Age mysteries of a writer like Agatha Christie, whom she cites as an important influence. As in the enclosed world of the country house, the containment of crime is ultimately unproblematic. This reassuring sense that order will be restored goes with the creation of a narrative that is fast-paced and suspenseful rather than seriously disturbing.
Charbonneau’s writing is lively, charming and playful. Her sparky, intuitive protagonist has returned to Indian Falls from her big city life in Chicago. She in many ways feels out of place in her hometown: she has “been gone a long time” and has made it clear she doesn’t “want to belong”. At the same time, she is hardly a tough, aggressive city girl. There are obvious contrasts between Rebecca Robbins and the chief literary model of the Chicago PI: although she turns out, when tested, to be brave and resolute, she is a world away from the street-wise, well-armed V. I. Warshawski. When it comes to it, she can pick up a gun but not fire it, and throughout the novel incidental comedy is generated by her sheer physical ineptitude – as in the pratfall of the novel’s opening sentence (“Falling on my ass really hurts”).
The crime itself is a quintessentially small-town affair: “‘This ain’t the city, you know. When a guy’s head is found floating in a toilet, that’s big news here.’” Indian Falls has been “awful dull” until it finds it has “a killer walking around”. As events accelerate, Rebecca begins to wonder how many crazy people are loose on the streets of her hometown. As in any Golden Age detective novel, the small community generates its share of treacheries. The plot hinges on greed and betrayal, and old friendships and loyalties are put under pressure by hidden desperation and animosity.
But the darker hints are contained within a plot that repeatedly pauses to enjoy the absurdities of small town life. Rebecca, feeling temporarily dejected, worries that a sheriff with Alzheimer’s might be making better progress than she is. Her discoveries often seem random and comic rather than useful in solving the murder – a cat with a personality disorder, a camel who wears hats, Barbie dolls in a storage locker and lawn ornaments torched in her grandfather’s front yard. Her grandfather, an aging Lothario, is all too keen to help her out in her breaking and entering, and her attempts to solve the crime repeatedly become entangled with his romantic conquests and with her own romantic attachment to the owner of the camel. Investigative exploits include quizzing “the Lutheran spy network” and “putting the fear of God” into a woman who looks “like Betty Crocker”. Through it all, Charbonneau keeps the action whizzing along, and, though we don’t ever actually fear for Rebecca, we are consistently engaged by her efforts to prove that her “PI abilities” will transform her, at the end of the day, into a very agreeable and competent series heroine.
There are drugs involved in Charbonneau’s mystery, but only those of the prescription variety. A crook in Indian Falls might misappropriate a bottle of pills, but that’s not in the same league as the destruction of your own life and the lives of others by taking or dealing in hard drugs. The drug-dealing is only one index of the much more somber, complex, downbeat character of Davidson’s beautifully written novel, The Damage Done. Whilst retaining the structure of the classic detective novel, this takes on all the complexities of the big city. Much of it is set in New York’s Lower East Side, with Lily’s investigations expanding to include financial wheeling and dealing, arson, fraud and identity theft, drug-related deaths and shady rehabilitation clinics, blackmail, revenge killings and numerous other murders. As suspects, clues and crimes proliferate, we are kept guessing by revelations of some of the darkest of human motives, by sinister connections and by multiple lies about people’s characters and identities.
A question of identity sets the plot in motion, when the protagonist, thinking her sister Claudia has been murdered, looks through the glass at the morgue and says, “‘That woman isn’t my sister…I’ve never seen her before in my life.’” The pursuit of the dead stranger’s identity is paralleled by the pursuit of the sister, who becomes a prime suspect, hunted not only by the police but by others. She is like “a poor little bird,” with everyone trying either to save or to snare her.
Lily is deeply unsettled as questions multiply: “Everything about this situation is strange.” Where is Claudia? What was the other woman doing in her apartment? Why was she impersonating Claudia and why had she died? Where was the point of intersection between Claudia and her impostor? Is Claudia implicated in the woman’s death? Why had Claudia contacted Lily’s ex-fiancée and what is his involvement in the crime?
Just as disturbingly, there is the gradual destabilization of Lily’s whole sense of her sister’s identity and ultimately of her own identity as well. The darkest of the novel’s themes is the “damage done” within families, and the consequent welling up of anger, frustration and resentment. Much of the plot links back to the emotional wreckage of earlier family traumas, and Lily feels an overwhelming burden of pain and guilt. She blames herself for her wild sister’s addiction and the kind of life she has led, crashing “from one misadventure to the next”. But she is also wracked by suspicion: has Claudia deliberately staged events in order to lure Lily “back into her web”? Is she in reality “a vampire who’ll drain the life out of you”? Or is it Lily herself who is becoming dangerously unbalanced in her pursuit of answers?
Davidson’s protagonist increasingly worries that she is being compromised by her efforts to get to the bottom of things. She fears that she is turning into the “scary”, transgressive one, going behind people’s backs, getting into trouble with the law, losing her moral bearings and doing things that violate her own sense of self: “Looking at my bruised face and scratched neck, I wondered where the real Lily had gone. Had I vanished when my sister had disappeared? I wasn’t sure what I was doing anymore, except getting myself into fights and trouble, both of which had always been Claudia’s department.”
Nevertheless, Lily presses on. As bodies accumulate and “Nothing adds up,” she feels that she is going in circles. In the best traditions of amateur lady detectives, of course, she is intrepid and persistent enough to work her way towards a solution to the mystery – or, in the case of The Damage Done, solutions to the numerous mysteries that have been woven together in a complex, satisfying narrative.
Davidson, like Charbonneau, has demonstrated that classic detection remains a vital form, capable of endless variation and of compelling readers to follow a protagonist’s investigation avidly to its end. Even when darkened by knowledge of shared culpability, the form offers reassuring closure. It fulfils our desire not just to find out who left the body in the bathtub, but to understand the tangled relationships that have led to the crime and to feel that, temporarily at least, the characters we care about have reached a well-deserved point of rest.
Copyright © 2010 by Kate Horsley and Lee Horsley