Friday, 22 April 2016

Sunset City by Melissa Ginsberg

While I primarily read crime fiction, I'm not wedded to the genre. I read and review books from across the spectrum - horror, crime (obviously), literature. And to be honest I don't always understand the distinction. A number of so called literature novels have a crime at their heart. One could think of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. But what about Aravand Adiga's Booker nominated White Tiger, the protagonist of which murders his boss? Or Mohammed Hanif’s The Case of Exploding Mangoes, which focuses on the shenanigans surroundings the mysterious death of Pakistan's President Zia, and speculates as to his assassination? Then there are crime novels which appear more literary, in which mold I would place Sunset City.

For to me, Melissa Ginsberg has penned a contemplation to loss, bereavement, regret. There is a crime at the centre of this tale, the death of the protagonist's best friend, Danielle Reeves, a charismatic woman who fell into drugs and the underbelly of vice in Houston, Texas. And the blurb promises us an investigation, hints that our protagonist, Charlotte Ford, will immerse herself in this world to get to the truth. But this is misleading. For what Charlotte really does over 250 odd pages, is struggle to understand the life Danielle lived. Charlotte is equal parts fascinated by her friend’s life and appalled by the manner in which she died, falling in with Danielle’s equally alluring but anguished stripper friend, Audrey. In this twilight world of sordid adult entertainment, Charlotte meets an unwholesome cast of pornographers, drugs dealers and addicts.

But at no point does Charlotte actively investigate Danielle’s murder, which in the main occurs "off page". She meets with the officer leading the investigation, Detective Ash. She conveys leads to him, much of which turn out to be correct, but she picks these up quite by accident through her normal interactions with people from Danielle’s world.

Here then is the strength of Sunset City. In Charlotte  Ford we have a regular and three dimensional woman. She has no super powers of deduction, no unarmed combat prowess, or experience of firearms. She doesn't doggedly pursue villains or bring outlaws to justice. Rather she reacts as any one of us might in such extraordinary circumstances, with bewilderment, sorrow and tribulation. She struggles to understand how this could have happened to someone so full of life as Danielle and it is this sense of despondency that drives the narrative.

In some ways Charlotte is a curiously passive character, but only if the reader were to judge Sunset City against other, more traditional, crime novels. And this here is my problem with the book. It's not that it's a bad read, it isn't, it's actually very good. But it's been miscast. My concern is that marketed as it is as a crime novel, those readers seeking such a book will find themselves disappointed. Where this really belongs is on the literature shelves where it would shine. For Mellissa Ginsberg has written a powerful meditation on how an ordinary woman faces emotional turmoil in the face of a horrific murder which ruptures the equilibrium of her world.

5 out of 5 stars

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