Friday, April 26, 2013

Review of The Polka Dot Girl by Darragh McManus (Roundfire Books, 2013)

Detective Eugenie Auf de Maur has risen quickly through the ranks of Hera City’s police department.  Smart, brave and a little foolhardy, she compensate for her diminutive size by sheer force of will.  But she may have met her match in the conspiracy surrounding the death of Madeleine Greenhill, a spoilt rich kid who has been fished out of docks wearing her favourite polka dot dress.  Madeleine, a wild child who trawled the bars and nightclubs and mixed in dubious circles, was the daughter of Misericordiae, one of the city’s most feared matriarch’s, a student at one of its most exclusive colleges.  Investigating the case is made more difficult by Madeleine’s circle of supposed friends closing ranks, Misericordiae desire for revenge, a hired thug trying to send the tiny detective to an early grave, a leak inside of the police department, and the distractions of a beautiful femme fatale.  Once Genie has her teeth in case though, she doesn’t let go regardless of the consequences.

It’s always interesting when an author takes a genre and spins it in a new way.  Recent examples includes Declan Burke’s Absolute Zero Cool, Duane Swierczynski’s Secret Dead Men, China Mieville’s The City, The City, and Jasper Fforde’s Nursery Crimes series.  The twist in McManus’ Polka Dot girl is to tell a classically framed hardboiled tale in which all the characters are female -- not just the lead roles, but the entire cast.  In conjunction with using prose that mimics the style of Chandler and Hamnett, and populating the story with all the cliched roles of the hardboiled genre -- the gutsy, wayward, headstrong detective, the attractive femme fatale, the self-destructive victim, the smart, conniving villain, the violent thug, and the trusted side-kick -- McManus produces a nice double-play: a satire on the masculinist tropes of hardboiled crime fiction at the same time as being an enjoyable hardboiled tale.  The story itself rattles along a fair clip with plenty of tension and twists and feints, and the dialogue is spot-on and there are some nice observational touches.  The plot is well constructed, though it’s sometimes sustained by a little too many plot devices (ignoring protocol, leaps of faith, coincidences of location, etc).  Moreover, I was left wondering about the strange society in which the story takes place -- a city that has no men, yet is organised and operates exactly like our own cities with the same hierarchies, vices and social order, in which only female children magically appear.  I kept thinking that surely a society without men would be structured in a different way?  Regardless, The Polka Dot girl is an interesting and entertaining story that spins a unique take on the genre and is a must for those who enjoy their crime fiction with a satirical twist.

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