Sceptre £6.99 ISBN
Part of my remit
for this column is to dig out American works that may have been overlooked in
this country. Lauren Belfer’s first novel, City Of
attracted little notice when it was published here, but at least it was
Perhaps because it
looks like, and was marketed as, an historical romance, it didn’t make an impact
in the crime field, but it probably should have. In my mind, simply learning
that rusty old icy
was indeed called the City of
was worth the price of admission.
Louisa Barrett is
the headmistress of an exclusive girl’s school in Buffalo, upstate New York,
just a waterfall away from
It is the turn of the century, and the waters of nearby
are being harnessed to provide the new miracle of electricity. They are also
providing huge profits for the cream of Buffalo society, the very people who
have given Miss Barrett their patronage.
But Louisa Barrett
has secrets of her own, regarding her goddaughter Grace, whose mother, Louisa’s
best friend, has recently died. Grace’s father, Tom Sinclair, is in charge of
the Niagara Falls
power plant, and when an outspoken engineer dies in a suspicious-looking
accident, Louisa can’t help but look at him as a suspect. But given that there
is a nascent environmentalist movement growing to protest the diversion of water
from the Falls, when another death occurs, Louisa finds herself in the middle of
a deepening, and threatening, puzzle.
So far so good,
and Lauren Belfer weaves a fascinating historical tale, book-ended by the dark
side of President Grover Cleveland’s character, and the assassination of
President William McKinley. It will draw comparisons with Caleb Carr’s The
Alienist, and perhaps also with The Devil In The White City, since
Buffalo’s Pan-American Exposition serves as a backdrop for much of the action.
at its elegant turn-of-the-century peak, when its position on the Great Lakes
made it a center of both trade and industry, and a rival to Chicago in terms of
second-city elegance. Belfer makes the most of the history, particularly the
way that provincial grandeur inspires a real narrowing of society.
But the book’s
strength is also its weakness. Miss Barrett may think she is a mover and shaker
in her society, but in the end she is really its victim, and the novel follows
the very slow progression of her self-awareness. Very, very slow, at times, as
scenes seem to repeat themselves to the point where the reader is checking to
see if the bookmark didn’t fall onto the wrong page by mistake. And despite the
Hawthornian touches of little Grace, with none-too-subtle echoes of The
Scarlet Letter. Lousia’s ultimate fate seems somehow a modern device, aimed
at avoiding the necessity of further plot complications. It’s almost as if,
having managed to dodge the label of ‘genre’ fiction throughout, Belfer was
forced to settle on it in order to resolve her plot to the genre elements
(murder, rape, blackmail) that drive it. Maybe a better comparison than
Hawthorne would be Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, though here she gives
us a far wider display of criminality throughout society than Dreiser might have
Much as I liked
the book, especially at the start, it has a couple of the more glaring lapses
I’ve encountered in a while. These probably result inevitably from a point of
view I’d call ‘enlightened anachronism‘, one which allows its audience its
feelings of moral superiority by attributing to at least one character a modern
sensibility which seems out of keeping even with rebels of the era. This is
also known as the ‘Fried Green Tomato Syndrome‘ after the book and movie of the
same name, and it does produce a couple of howlers.
classic pinnacle occurs when one character is described as coming from ‘Shaker
stock’. Now, furniture can come from Shaker stock, but since a cornerstone of
the Shaker movement was abstinence from sex, and separation of the sexes,
children did not, could not, by definition, come from Shaker stock. Still, it
probably sounded so old New England! But Shakers aren’t Quakers, not even as
There’s also my
favourite sentence, a lovely error forced by the necessity of establishing
Louisa’s feminist credentials. Louisa ponders that ‘she’d suffered none of the
dire consequences that traditionalists promised women who broke with their
‘proper’ roles (such as insanity).’ Gee, I never knew insanity was a proper
role for a woman. Live and learn!
is a book which takes a great idea and runs with it. If perhaps Belfer ran a
little too far, or in a few too many circles, it’s still an engrossing story,
and deserved more attention from the crime world when it came out.
Gotham Central: Unresolved Targets
Written by Ed Brubaker & Greg Rucka, Drawn by
Michael Lark & Stefano Gaudiano
Titan Books £9.99 ISBN 1845761308
odd to think that one of the best police procedural series in America is being
done in comics. You need good writers; Ed Brubaker has written some excellent
crime comics, and Greg Rucka also writes crime novels, so the foundation is
there. But the police-station drama is a difficult one to pull off in comic
book form, as it is on film. It’s better suited to novels (McBain, Wambaugh,
Sjowall & Wahloo, Mankell) or television series (Police Story, Hill Street
Blues, Law & Order, Homicide), where the ensemble casts have time to develop
individual characters, and the plot strands can be extended across books or
film, characters inevitably get lost and continuing storylines disappear of
necessity. In comic book format, the problem is different. A story line is
easy enough to extend, but a character is harder to develop. The shorthand
which the actor can provide is a real challenge for an artist working within the
limitations of panels, and in ensemble casts those panels can get very crowded.
It’s interesting that in Gotham Central some of the characters who are
delineated the most sharply are the ones who remind us of people we’ve seen
before. In this case, Captain Maggie Sawyer sure looks a lot like Maritska
Hargitay, from Law & Order Special Victims Unit, not that there’s anything ipso
facto wrong with that.
there’s the bigger formal question, specific to the world of comics, of how you
make a simple police story work in a super-hero universe? The answer lies in
the art. Where Gotham Central succeeds best is in its portrayal of Gotham City
itself. Ever since Frank Miller drew new life into the character, the best
Batman stories have recognised the city as a crucial element, if not player, in
the stories, and in all its many incarnations since,
Gotham has become progressively more insane, even worse
in the 1970s! Actually, my memory was that Manhattan in 1972, say, was pretty
exciting, a lot more so than its present reincarnation as Disneyworld North.
But Gotham City never met Rudy Giuliani. Anyway, in Gotham’s atmosphere of
grimy non-stop crime, even the Batman is over-stretched, and the crime-fighting
of ordinary cops becomes a battle against chaos itself. This works perfectly,
because, as we’ve seen, the ensemble cast tends to get squeezed into panels. In
the Gotham Central series, the detectives are usually drawn into extremely tight
panels, always constricted, limited, almost threatened by the frames. Page upon
page, they are literally trapped in a maze.
Batman’s super-villains tend to be characters with super-psychoses, rather than
super-powers, so they fit right in. The Joker and the Mad Hatter are the
villains in the stories in this volume, and in this case there is a certain mad
realism to their villainy, something the detectives can sink their teeth into.
Even the Penguin, who’s peripherally involved, seems realistic, almost sad.
Their presence doesn’t seem to imply the Batman of necessity, and the
relationship between the Batman and the police remains one of resentment as much
as anything else. In fact, the nature of the Batman as vigilante is something
that should rub police the wrong way, by definition, and that tension is
something this comic highlights well.
Brubaker and Rucka plot a dark picture of corruption, frustration, and sheer
fatigue, whose attitude transcends the panels. They pull no punches; characters
die (always a problem for successful series) and the crimes have the necessary
mix of comic book grotesquery and crime-story reality. It’s time they got to
exercise their skills with a bigger story, one that could be collected in a
Watchman-sized volume. Their work is that good, and I recommend it highly.