Jan 3 2011
Note: In order to combine comments for this one book, I’ve grouped two reviews together. The first review is by Jennie (and is the more negative review) and the second is by Jia (the more positive review).
Dear Ms. Carr,
The title of your debut novel jumped out from a list of new books for review, and I did a little research and found that India Black was a historical mystery, set in Victorian England and featuring our eponymous heroine as a madam who ends up entangled in espionage. Since I’m fond of several historical mystery series (notably C.S. Harris’ Sebastian St. Cyr mysteries and the Arianna Franklin medieval mystery series), and I’m delighted by the idea of a madam heroine, I eagerly dove in to the book. Unfortunately, it didn’t work very well for me.
India Black is, as mentioned, the proprietress of a house of ill-repute, one in which a client unexpectedly shuffles off this mortal coil in the midst of being entertained by one of the prostitutes. India quickly decides that the logistics of informing the authorities and getting the body removed in a conventional and legal way would be inconvenient and bad for business. She hatches an alternate plan, enlisting a local urchin to assist her in moving the body to a public place where it can be found easily (she is not so hard-hearted that she would not want the man’s family to know what happened to him, though she denies any kindness is involved). During this middle-of-the-night operation, a mysterious man arrives on the scene and takes charge – he will see to the disposal of the body, and India only need produce the briefcase that the unfortunate fellow brought to his rendezvous.
Except that the briefcase – which turns out to contain important government papers – is missing, as is the prostitute who was with the client when he expired. The mystery man turns out to be French (um, that’s his name, not his nationality), a government agent who then summons India to a meeting with Benjamin Disraeli.
My main problem with India Black - and it was unfortunately a big one – was with the heroine. Specifically with her voice. The book is narrated first-person by India herself, and while I was well-prepared to like her, I just couldn’t. Her voice is relentlessly chatty, breezy and jokey. A little of that went a long way. The voice didn’t feel particularly authentic, either to the time period or in general.
There were a couple of possible anachronisms that contributed to a lack of authenticity in India’s voice. At one point, she uses the word “neanderthal,” in the more modern, non-literal sense. One online etymology source traces the word back to 1861, meaning India could have known of it when the story takes place, in 1876 (she seems to have a rather broad breadth of trivial knowledge; more on that in a moment). But I wasn’t convinced that the modern definition describing a person acting idiotically or immaturely as a Neanderthal would have been in usage then.
Also, at one dramatic moment India muses,
I expected the music to swell patriotically at this point, but all I heard was Dizzy's fevered breathing, and Endicott chewing the end of his mustache.
This leapt out at me because it seemed to be the observation of someone who had watched dramatic films or television shows in which music is used to ramp up the drama of a scene. Unless this technique was used in theater at the time, it makes no sense for India to think like this.
I often feel like I’m carping when I bring up anachronisms, and I feel compelled to make clear that my noticing such things is generally indicative of a larger problem. I am not engaged in the story, and I have, to some degree at least, lost my trust in the author. I think the combination of India’s unconvincing voice, the unrealistic details that popped out at me, and the historical facts rather obviously shoehorned into the story all combined to make the story feel very superficial and fake to me. Furthermore, India’s narration is packed full of metaphors and similes – they occur in virtually every sentence. This made the book feel overwrritten to me and I almost wanted to reach into the book and tell India to speak plainly for once.
Another thing that bugged me was the way historical details were woven into the narrative – it felt clunky rather than seamless. Take for example, India’s characterization of Benjamin Disraeli, whom she invariably refers to flippantly as Dizzy. Apparently he had a real-life reputation for verbosity. I know this because India brings it up. Over and over. By the third or fourth time she makes some crack about his loquaciousness, I really wanted to say enough already, I get it – guy likes to talk.
As mentioned above, I wanted to like India. She had an intriguing background and she was tough, and I admire toughness in a heroine (particularly a historical heroine). I would even have liked her sardonic voice if it weren’t so relentless – if she could drop the wisecracking facade on occasion. But I was prevented from really getting to know India, in a way that I found frustrating. There is virtually no backstory included in the narrative that gives the reader an inkling of how India grew up, how she became a prostitute, and what her life has been like up to the point that the story begins. There is plenty of evidence that she is smart and well-rounded, at times a bit too much so. India appears to know a bit about everything, from Shakespeare to obscure Russian swords to American firearms. She’s like a walking Victorian Wikipedia. Even French comments on the breadth of her knowledge at one point; I was hoping that would open the door to some sort of glimpse into India’s story, but no dice. I sense that India Black is intended as the first book in a series, and I understand the author’s desire to unravel a character slowly, but it’s not really fair to those who are reading this book to hold back on details that would make the character vastly more interesting and understandable.
As it was, India’s callousness, which could have been amusing and perversely admirable, began to grate on me as the story went on. I just didn’t like her very much.
French is more standard-romance-hero fare, and thus perhaps more palatable to me as a reader. We only see him from India’s POV; he appears to be attractive, smart and mysterious. I liked him, though I wouldn’t have minded more depth of characterization there, as well. There’s definitely a hint of romance there, though very little happens to advance it in this book.
There are a few other main characters that are competently drawn if not particularly original – the main being a plucky street urchin, Vincent, who always seems to turn up to save India and French when their shenanigans go awry. The villains are Russians of the Boris and Natasha (of Rocky and Bullwinkle fame) mold. I did find myself surprised by one twist with the villains, and I appreciated that in a story that was otherwise short on suspense.
The plot is rather superfluous, which would be fine in a character-based book if I liked the main character more. Basically, there is a lot of what a friend of mine has termed “running around” – really rather literally true, in this book. French and India plot to get the papers back from the bad guys, they fail, then succeed, then lose them again, etc. It’s very Keystone Kops, which would be okay if I found it funny, but I didn’t.
I could pick any number of examples of the prose in India Black to illustrate my problems with the writing. Here are the opening paragraphs:
My name is India Black. I am a whore.
If those words made you blush, if your hand fluttered to your cheek or you harrumphed disapprovingly into your beard, then you should return this volume to the shelf, cast a cold glance at the proprietor as you leave, and hasten home feeling proper and virtuous. You can go to Evensong tonight with a clear conscience. However, if my admission caused a frisson of excitement in your drab world: if you felt a stirring in your trousers or beneath your skirts when you read my words, then I must caution you that you will be disappointed in the story contained in this volume. No doubt you're hoping to read in these pages the narrative of a young woman's schooling in the arts of love, or perhaps a detailed description of some of my more memorable artistic performances. As for the former, there's enough of that kind of shoddy chronicle available, most of it written by men masquerading as "Maggie" or "Eunice," and therefore not only fictitious but asinine to boot. As for the latter, I'd be the first to admit that I was a tireless entertainer in the boudoir, but that's another story for another time, and will cost you more money than this volume when I get around to writing it down.
For me, this reads as overwritten – the sort of writing that is fine (even evocative) in small doses but palls quickly when one is fed a constant diet of it. Readers who think an entire book written in this style is to their taste will undoubtedly like India Black a lot more than I did. As it was, I can only give it a grade of C.
Dear Ms. Carr,
I’ll be the first person to admit that I’m not a mystery reader. I don’t know much about the genre at all. But your debut caught my eye because it featured a prostitute heroine, and I do like to read about fictional working girls. That was enough to prod me into giving your novel a try. After all, I think branching out into other genres is a good thing to do every now and then.
I adjudicated a dispute between Marigold and Lucinda over whose turn it was to wear the purple taffeta, listened to a complaint about the quality of wrist restraints I’d purchased for a discount from a brothel going out of business in the next street, and gave my ear to a shockingly bold request that I supply the rouge for the house, as I could no doubt get it wholesale, and save the girls a bundle. Next, they’ll be unionizing. Soon I’d have to negotiate labour contracts with the Association of Risque Trade Suppliers. It was growing increasingly difficult for an employer to exploit the workers in this country. I’d have to write my MP soon.
Unfortunately, this is not to last. First, a client dies of a heart attack in one of the bedrooms upstairs. Second, the girl who’d been with him at the time vanishes. But it’s the third thing that’s the major problem. After all, you can dispose of corpses secretly without staining your brothel’s reputation. You can always hire another girl to replace the one that left. No, the problem is that the dead man was a government official and he happened to have been carrying with him a briefcase containing sensitive military secrets that would cause problems for England should they fall into the wrong hands. And of course, the briefcase is nowhere to be found.
This is a dilemma for the War Office, especially since Russia would be very keen to get their hands on that briefcase and its precious secrets. And so India is quite literally kidnapped off the street and blackmailed into helping British agents retrieve the briefcase and its sensitive contents. But she’ll have to face some very determined Russian agents to succeed in this task.
Like I said earlier, I’m not a mystery reader and I am not at all knowledgeable about the genre, its various subcategories, and its conventions. But speaking from that place of ignorance, this doesn’t seem at all like a mystery to me. Or at least, what my idea of a mystery should be. The focus isn’t really on the whodunnit and to be honest, there was no mystery because it’s apparent from the get-go what happened and who was responsible. It was to me anyway, so I imagine more well-versed readers would think the same.
What I do consider this book to be, however, is a spy caper. It is in fact one of the best examples of a caper novel that I’ve read in recent years. You get that hint from the cover copy, of course, and there is the narrative voice of India which is full of the witticisms and sardonic humor I expect from caper stories. I don’t actually know if caper stories fall into the mystery genre and I’d be glad if someone could enlighten me, but I want to make it clear what this novel really is. I’d hate for a reader to pick it up expecting careful investigation when in reality, it is about a person of dubious background and reputation committing over the top acts in retaliation against another questionable deed. In this specific case, it’s about a prostitute trying to steal back secrets that were stolen from right under her nose.
But what really made this novel for me was India’s narrative voice. I loved how jaded and world-weary she was. It was fitting for the character, her profession, and the plot she found herself embroiled in. First-person narratives can be very hit or miss for me. I read a lot of them but it’s not as often that I genuinely love them. India’s voice worked for me on that level.
The papers also contained the usual laments over the escalating crime rate and the inability of the Metropolitan Police Force to keep reputable citizens from being thumped on the head, all tinged with a wistful nostalgia for a kinder, more innocent era, when virtue reigned and the streets were safe. Wherever the writers of this kind of drivel had lived before now, it clearly wasn’t London.
But first-person point of view can be very tricky and humor is subjective, so I can see some readers really hating India’s voice and personality. It’s just that strong.
I won’t pretend that I was surprised by any of what unfolded in the plot. I wasn’t. But it was a fun romp that kept me entertained. The face-off against the Russian spies might have been a little drawn out and stretching it too far, even for a caper where my expectations for over the topness are readjusted accordingly, but overall the story kept me engaged.
India’s partner in crime, so to speak, here is the British spy, French. I believe he’s intended to be a love interest and perhaps the relationship will develop in that direction in future books, but there wasn’t much of that here. India is indeed attracted to him but she also seems to view it as an annoyance, which I think is fitting with her character. I can’t imagine someone, let alone a prostitute, as jaded as India would swoon over anyone. I personally like that pragmatism. And to end, I just want to say that the boat scene between India and French that had me laughing.
In the end, I’m still not sure whether or not you can consider this a mystery. But regardless, I would love to read more caper novels along this vein, especially if they feature female protagonists, so I do look forward to the next India Black novel. I personally don’t mind that nothing really happened between her and French here but perhaps readers interested in that plotline will have something more to work with in the next installment. B+