Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Thanks Brian! - and Stella's origins

Today I would like to offer my heartfelt thanks to Brian Lindenmuth, who wrote this very thoughtful review. I'm really humbled that anyone would put this much consideration to my current and future work, and it makes me want to work that much harder to make sure the series shines.

A couple of people have raised the question of whether Stella would ever take a job on behalf of a male client, and I am happy to say that's addressed in future books. Another question that's been asked is whether Stella could ever be deceived by a client - if she could be swayed by a woman's sob story and later discover she'd been taken in.

That just tickles me to pieces, because that is precisely what happened in the short story that was the basis for the series. In 2007, I wrote a funky little paranormal story set in the Nevada desert. It was a little bit Koontz-ish, and it featured a badass renegade not unlike Stella. (It was first person, so she never really had a name in the story.) My brother Mike, who is my great supporter and frequent reader and critiquer, said "Hey, I think you have a book here." I took out the paranormal piece (long story) and off we went.

Someday I'd love to be able to share that short story, because I really think it's one of the best things I've written. For now though it stays under wraps because it's too confusing to reveal a ghost element that is not present in the rest of the series.

(Incidentally, and apropos of nothing, I wrote a great story for the MWA paranormal anthology competition this year. I mean, that story kicked ass all around town! I loved that story! Well, MWA didn't. Tell you what though - anyone who wants to read it, just email me and I'll send you a copy. I'm at sophie@sophielittlefield.com. And PS? My brother's story, which is also awesome, did make the cut and will be published in the anthology.)

OK enough of me blathering. Here is Brian's review, with my heartfelt thanks:
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I think that the engine of the story, and the series presumably, is a strong one and definitely an interesting one, but isn’t quite a finely tuned one – though it will serve Littlefield well as a launching pad for future stories. The “correcting” of husbands’ wayward behaviors through force is such a grey area on so many levels, and raises so many questions, that this has a lot of potential to be fertile story ground because it doesn’t take much questioning to come up with interesting “what if” type scenarios that challenge the notion. And to be fair I think the central premise WILL have to be challenged from time to time, otherwise it runs some risks. For example what if a woman was to know which of Stella’s buttons to push in order to get her to act and would lie to Stella to get what she wants. What if the genders were reversed and a husband needed Stella’s help, would she be so quick to mete out her brand of “justice” if it was a woman that needed correcting. I want to be clear, these questions don’t indicate a weakness of the central story engine (not yet anyway), just some corners that still need to be explored.

A good bit of crime novels are sexist. There, I said it. There just aren’t a whole hell of a lot of fully developed female characters in relation to the amount of fully developed male characters. This isn’t a condemnation, though, just an observation, because sometimes it’s intentional but often it’s not. More than once while readingA Bad Day For Sorry I had to smile to myself, because at times it’s like a photo negative opposite of the rest of the genre because the two female leads are fully developed but the men are all two-dimensional. They are either enigmas or assholes, with nothing in between. Those who have read the book will cry foul at this observation and will invoke the “Goat” defense. Goat being the closest thing that the novel has to a male lead, the sheriff that Stella flirts with and would like to pursue but is caught right now in a will-they-or-won’t-they story line. But I stand by it because the Goat defense doesn’t work for me when you take a closer look at it. Goat has the illusion of being fully developed but isn’t. He’s a caricature of female desire. He’s strong, he’s mysterious, he’s handsome and he comes to the rescue; he’s understanding; he’s powerful, wise and cunning; he’s this, he’s that… But more importantly, he’s a collection of traits rather then a developed character. Will he be developed further in later volumes? Only time and Sophie Littlefield can tell.

If, when Stella and Chrissie saddle up to rescue Tucker, A Bad Day For Sorry feels a bit like Thelma & Louiseredux, it’s not because it is a rehashing of that movies themes but because, on quite a few levels, it is a direct descendent of it. In the Oklahoma City University Law Review in 1997 Shirley A Wiegland wrote an article calledDeception and Artifice: Thelma, Louise, and the Legal Hermeneutic in which she posits a theory for why male viewers reacted differently, and often contrastly, to the movie than female viewers did. The crux of her argument is that the reactions have to do with how one views the legal system and its ability to protect people. The movie gave voice to feelings of ambivalence for female viewers who believed that the legal system (and probably society in general by extension) wasn’t there to help them and often hindered them. I think that Stella (and by extension Chrissie) operates within this framework of a tenuous and often untrustworthy relationship with the law. While being abused over the years by her husband she so desperately wanted someone to help her; a show of strength that would ignite the strength that was buried within her. But the law didn’t exist for her, so when that help never arrived she took the law into her own hands, meting out her own justice, and she now operates to give other women the same opportunity. Her reluctance to pursue a relationship with Goat indicates she is aware of her strained relationship with Law in the past, but her desire for him is indicative that she hasn’t yet fully rejected the system.

This poses an interesting question, though. If Stella is, in effect, the strength for others that she wanted for herself back then. And if her side business is an act of healing, in other words a partially selfish act, then what happens to that business when she becomes more balanced and her abusive-past-sized hole starts to fill? Certainly more fertile ground for Littlefield to till in later volumes.

While I do hope that Stella’s methods and her beliefs will be challenged head on from time to time, she remains a great character, and future books in the series are going to have a hell of good time fleshing her out further. She has three dimensions and multiple facets. She is contradictory and tenacious. She frustrates. She has firm beliefs that are born from hard experience. She may be an alcoholic. She is a killer. She hasn’t fully confronted her past actions but has loosely reconciled with them. She remains, above all else, interesting. Perhaps this quote from the book after she has handily dispatched beat the shit out of someone sums up her character best:

“You thought you had me because you’re young. But badass comes in all ages.”

On a very, very small scale, I found the minor character Marie, the wife of mafia-affiliated Funzi, to be an interesting character from one perspective and an interesting duck from another. Mafia (or Mafia-esqe) wives are, in a lot of mediums, presented as being tough matriarchal figures who know what the score is but would never talk about it in a million years. Marie, on the other hand, is an emaciated figure who cowers before her slimy husband. An inversion of a character type or a lack of character development? Could go either way. But a tough figure (possibly the real power behind her husband) who wanted a child and wouldn’t be denied probably would have made for a much more interesting climatic showdown (also addressing gender reversals). Interestingly, Stella’s system of favors done for favors returned (or not) at a later date is reminiscent of The Godfather and Vito Corelone’s complex system of favors. She is, in some ways, the Don Vito of her story.

There was at least one moment where (at least from her internalized perspective) she has enough of taking a beating from some heavies and turns into a superwoman. This bordered on cartoon. Her surge of strength. I thought that it would have been really interesting to know what would happen if this woman (who had dealt pretty firmly with abuse) catches a beating while on the job? Apparently nothing. How would it affect her? Not at all really.

Something else to consider. Whether she was intending to or not, Littlefield was kind of looking at the borders ofGone Baby Gone territory. Some readers may begin to wonder at some point if Chrissie is fit to be a mother. This debate is ducked by having the rag-tag band of antagonists be so unworthy.

Did I like the book? Yes, very much so. I found the book to be thought-provoking and engaging, and I tried to put a little bit of what I was thinking throughout my reading of it in the review here. This series and this character have all of the ingredients to be very commercially successful, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t. I agree with Nerd that Littlefield avoids full dark, at least for my tastes, and some punches are pulled, but that’s more than fine since not all readers like such things.

Readers who pick this book up (and they should) will be in for a damn good read.


2 comments:

Eric said...

Wow, that is one great, interesting, thoughtful and very well deserved review. Big congrats.

Stephen Blackmoore said...

Wow. That is a hell of a review.

Congratulations.