REVIEW: Even Though I Knew the End by C.L. Polk
C. L. Polk turns their considerable powers to a fantastical noir. A magical detective dives into the affairs of Chicago’s divine monsters to secure a future with the love of her life. This sapphic period piece will dazzle anyone looking for mystery, intrigue, romance, magic, or all of the above.
An exiled augur who sold her soul to save her brother’s life is offered one last job before serving an eternity in hell. When she turns it down, her client sweetens the pot by offering up the one payment she can’t resist — the chance to have a future where she grows old with the woman she loves. To succeed, she is given three days to track down the White City Vampire, Chicago’s most notorious serial killer. If she fails, only hell and heartbreak await.
CW – one scene is set in an insane asylum where treatment plans to “cure” patients with electroshock therapy are discussed
Dear C.L. Polk,
Wow. Just … that was amazing in so many different ways. I zipped through this quickly since it’s a novella and am still processing the ending but .. I guess I knew the end, right?
Helen Brandt is on the scene of an investigation she’s been hired to do. The person who hired her wanted her to delve more deeply into it but Helen’s only got a short amount of time. Three days, to be precise, before she has to pay the price for what she wanted ten years ago. She got what she wanted even though it ended up costing her what she got.
After taking her photos of the crime scene and having a run-in with some people she’d rather have avoided, she heads to a nightclub where women like her can relax and be themselves. It’s also where Edith is waiting for her. Beautiful Edith who asked Helen to dance but didn’t know if she should lead or follow but then later ended their evening together with a kiss that made the world stand still and watch. Helen has taken on this last job for a ridiculous price in order to give Edith more of a stake for when she moves out to their dream of San Francisco.
The next morning though, the one who hired Helen offers her an even better payoff. One thousand dollars … and something that Helen never thought she’d have again. It’s irresistible and Helen certainly jumps at the opportunity. Perhaps she should have paused and thought it through a bit longer. But she’s made her bargain and the incentive won’t let her stop. Will she and Edith have the future Helen has always dreamed of?
I love the style of writing here. Helen has that hard boiled edge to her of the best noir stories. And this one is very, very noir. Bits and pieces of the plot and the character backgrounds are slowly revealed just as needed. Surprises are around every twist and turn. I was on the edge of my seat to find out what was going to happen next.
There is enough explanation to follow along but also a wonderful way to avoid getting heavy handed and bogged down.
The spell worked by pairing the principles of contagion and sympathy. My blood activated the luminescent properties of the radium and the living glow of the fungus, connecting it to the blood that had been spilled—
You know what? Let’s skip the explanation. The ground beneath my feet glowed, spreading from the tiny droplets I had spilled to fill the alley in obscene greenish detail, exactly the color of the hands on a glow-in-the-dark clock, or a—yeah, a fairy mushroom. Blood doesn’t un-spill easily. It marks the places it touches. The cops scrubbed really hard, but you can’t wash it all away.
The historical details go beyond just clothes and cars to include attitudes and actions. The scene in the nightclub was amazing.
The Wink was long and narrow, its chipped brick walls lined with cozy horseshoe booths. Real crystal chandeliers—mismatched, bless every one of them—glittered through a fog of cigarette smoke. They hung down the center of the room, leading the way past the long, well-stocked bar to a round-edged stage, where Miss Francine swayed in a glittering blue gown and sang “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”.
The room was full of women; don’t let the double-breasted suits and slicked-back hair fool you. The Wink was a haven of women, gathered in clumps or cuddled around a special companion, whether they wore starched collar shirts or satin and sequins. The Friday-night women of the Wink could make free, drinking and laughing, eyeing each other the way they’d never dare on the street.
Helen and Edith have been lovers and in love for years but to eat dinner together in public, they’ve had to concoct a lie complete with wedding rings and a backstory of meeting once a month due to their “marriages” having pulled them apart. Another scene is in the “nuthouse” where mental cases, and queers, are sent to “cure” them. One character tells Helen “The revulsion for homosexual love is a human prejudice.” But Helen knows that for now, that’s enough to make her life hell and that most people don’t agree that “All are welcome in the house of God, Elena.” The lovely house and life that Edith and Helen dream of is tantalizingly close and a million miles from all that. I could see why Helen is willing to pay a price to get it.
The book is firmly rooted in the angels and demons of Christianity. It is deeply romantic and yet I also wanted more romance. Choices are made, hard choices, but also ones that characters make with their eyes “wide open” about them. In the end, the characters and I have to ask what is love worth to you and will you pay that price. B+