He’s Gone by Alex Clare

Last January’s Women’s March events all over the world raised a lot of questions about who had a right to participate, and why. The concept of “woman” has been destabilised and questioned since Simone De Beauvoir announced to the world that one becomes a woman, rather than being born one. In fact, postmodern theorists like Judith Butler have denied the existence of a subject that exists under the label ‘woman’, and instead advocates for a more diverse take on womanhood that breaks away with society’s traditional constructions and expectations.  Hes Gone explores this postmodern postulate by having a trans-woman detective as a main character. Meet Robyn Bailley, DI of the Meresbourne police in Kent (UK), a working-class town witness to the industrial crisis of the 20th century. Like the town, Robyn has felt her life deteriorate for decades now. That is, until she realised that she no longer was Roger Bailley, but Robyn.  Is crime fiction ready for a trans-woman main character? Apparently not. As Robyn struggles to come back to work as her true self, she will find rejection from her colleagues, Melissa – mother to Ben – and whose child’s disappearance she is investigating; and the rabid journalists who want to know more about her transition and think that maybe she is not the right person to be involved in a case involving a child. If this situation was not enough, Robyn’s daughter cannot believe what her father has become and wonders if their relationship can move forward to healthy grounds.

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Hes gone can be labelled as one of the first novels to introduce a trans-woman main character in crime fiction. But the novel is also rich in female characters, and one of its peculiarities is the construction of the victim’s mother as a dislikeable woman. Robyn’s struggle is also adorned with the echoes of Melissa’s conservative church, for whom Robyn’s identity emerges as a dangerous and contagious state of identity that should not be allowed to exist: “Let me be clear. I meant why were you speaking at the press conference? Now, rather than thinking about Benjamin, everyone will be focusing on you and your deviance”. Melissa Chivers emerges as one of the most unlikable characters in contemporary crime fiction, where the victim and their family needed the sympathy of the detective, and the reader, in order to move the story forward. Not in this novel. The creation of Melissa as unlikable character works as a test for political correctness when she is described as an overly ambitious black woman who made herself, but who is a terrible mother to her kid. This type of femininity, that goes against the traditional image of the loving and caring mother, presents the reader with questions about how the expectations of being a woman in contemporary society, as well as the importance of seeing beyond stereotypes in criminal investigations.

Ironically, Robyn perceives Melissa as a woman that exudes the power and authority that she feels she is lacking, and that Roger clearly had. In an effort to present herself to the world in a similar light, Robyn keeps in mind Melissa’s body: “She remembered how Ms Chivers stood when she exuded a feminine authority and turned a little to the side so that she no longer faced the camera head on, putting one foot half a pace in front of the other. That felt more natural”.

Along with posture, Robyn has also incorporated new hair, and the use of make-up and nail varnish to the set of acts that make her a woman. These typically feminine products become her trademark, as they are used to trace the thick line that has traditionally separated masculine and feminine aesthetics. Her insistence on adopting traditional female markers could not have found a better historical moment, as Third-wave feminism, postmodernism at its best, relies on traditional feminine traits. As Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards explain in Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future (New York: Farrar, 2000): ‘Girlie encompasses the tabooed symbols of women’s feminine enculturation—Barbie dolls, makeup, fashion magazines, high heels (p. 136.) However, traditional feminine aesthetics are constructed in spaces restricted to women with no safe space for masculinity. As Robyn faces her first week as a woman, the novel takes us back to Roger’s decision to buy women’s clothes for the first time, and the worried looks of the shop assistant that forced him to purchase Robyn’s wardrobe fully on the Internet: “She’d visited a few shops as Roger but the questioning looks from shop assistants whenever she’d picked anything up had put her off and decided it was much easier to buy the first set of female clothes online”. Hence, social media and the Internet emerge as a safe place in which liminal identities can be performed and shared with people with a similar life experience. The community Robyn found online, as well as the anonymity of online shopping, granted her the opportunity to explore alternative constructions of womanhood, as well as people who, like her, do not adhere to traditional cisgender discourses. The ultimate questioning of the construction of safe spaces for the performance of non-normative gender identities comes up in the form of bathrooms. After Robyn’s struggle to choose which bathroom to use, the issue intersects with Donald Trump’s recent revocation of federal protection for trans-students in schools all over the country starting a conversation about human rights, and the construction of gender identity. In her first day back, she enters the men’s bathroom, but she will later on move to the disable’s one.

The patriarchal segregation of non-white and non-normative bodies outside the dominant discourse tangentially emerges as a key element in the construction of the postmodern identity and the forensic detective process. As Robyn negotiates her new identity with herself and her colleagues, she ponders on the physicality of forensic science, and the need to go beyond the metaphysical and consider the importance of the victim’s personal narrative and life story. This moment, although as brief as a paragraph, constitutes a remarkable point of inflexion in contemporary crime fiction, comes when the remains of a victim need to be identified though DNA testing. In this precise moment – and still a year far from her complete physical transformation into a woman – Robyn realises that were she to die, her DNA would come up as masculine in the system. With this scene, Robyn’s narrative is questioning long-held beliefs about the legitimacy of forensic science, and the blind trust that the 20th century deposited into scientific discourses. It is true that the production of scientific knowledge needs to rely on the metaphysical world in order to avoid past mistakes such as the pseudo-scientific theories used to back up racism and discrimination against women. But, crime fiction goes a step beyond this metaphysical world and posts questions about the construction of the subject victim from the investigating team’s point of view.

The necessity of approaching the detective process from a more personal point of view led to the questioning of Robyn’s detective process, as she sees how the loss of Roger’s male gaze has resulted in her re-education about what she is allowed to see as a policewoman. If Laura Mulvey met Robyn, she would have a perfect case study of how men are given the privilege of looking, while women are looked at. The term “gaze” appears throughout the novel linked to the pressure Robyn feels from people around her, yet another struggle of her new identity. This is reflected in Roger’s pastime as a photographer, while Robyn struggles to pick up a camera after her transformation. However, discrimination is subtler, with of her peers presuming that Robyn, unlike Roger, will not be driving the police car, relegating her to the passenger’s seat, where she is a mere spectator. As the late John Berger stated (1972): ‘Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at’. Robyn herself feels the weight of this gaze when the case becomes news, and she is faced with several press conferences. Have the audience noticed her chipped nail polish? Will the camera enhance the different between her skin tone and her new foundation? And, will the evening audience notice that the laser removal still did not get away with her beard? Directly related to being watched comes sexual harassment, which takes a darker turn with Robyn’s trans identity, as an officer jokes she may be on her period, on the one hand constructing women’s minds as unstable and, on the other hand, being cruel to Robyn who clearly does not have a period. Her final recovery of agency will come through the detecting process, as Robyn solves three cases in collaboration with her team and finally finds peace in her negotiation of her past and present by incorporating Roger’s professional experience into Robyn’s life story. In the eureka moment that postmodern fiction relies on – that scene where everything comes together and the truth is revealed to both the main character and readers – Robyn can only solve the case because of the specific knowledge that comes from lived experience, in her case, a female (albeit short) lived experience.

As Roger morphed into Robyn, she was faced with the task of redefining her relationship to those in her inner circle of friends. The novel centres around Robyn’s relationship with her daughter, Becky, to whom Robyn communicated her new identity in a letter. The necessity to redefine paternity in the postmodern is also highlighted by the case Robyn investigates, as the disappeared child’s father is unknown. However, Robyn’s daughter appears as a young agent of change, who will offer the detective the possibility of deciding which place to occupy in her life. Robyn’s decision to remain Becky’s father opens up a dialogue about how gender structures family life, and the necessity to break way with traditional representations of motherhood and fatherhood. The case itself works as a bone of contention, as Robyn faces the recent of the emergence of conservative groups that, in the postmodern era, fight for a return to more stable definitions and meanings. As the mother of the victim, a religious extremist member of a cult against abortion, homosexuality, birth control, and any kind of “diversity gone mad”. Melissa voices religious concerns about gender fluidity, but The Men’ Rights movement also makes an appearance highlighting the necessity of every child to have a father relaying on traditional discourses based on gender-biased arguments. However, the eventual defeat of these discourses comes from Robyn’s solving of the case and her refusal to give up a job she loves.

He’s Gone by Alex Clare is a thrilling post-modern novel in which the inclusion of a trans-woman detective questions the conception of the detective novel and its normative and traditional representations of women as victims. However, it is still to be seen whether the novel receives praise for its inclusion of a transwoman as a main character in a literary tradition that has been considered masculine since its inception, or whether the creation of a trans character by a cisgender woman is still problematic. I, for one, was very happy to meet Robyn, and I hope that more writers – cisgender, trans, and genderqueer – venture into crime fiction to prove that the word ‘detective’ welcomes all subjects alike. It’s just about time.

Flashbacks by J.E Hall

I borrowed Flashbacks by J.E Hall from a friend from university who, knowing of my passion for crime fiction, thought I would enjoy a thriller by a local author that she is familiar with. Turns out, she was right!

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Meet Adam, a nineteen-year-old about to enjoy his gap year bicycling all the way from his native England to the Middle East. Over-protected by his parents, who insist on safety issues that he, clearly does not need.

Kaylah is doing Business Studies at Southgate University and daughter to Bishop Sam Kone, descendant of Caribbean immigrants and a television star. As any young woman, Kaylah does not agree with her parents’ beliefs, and keeps her mind open to other religious ideas.

Ali has recently given up his engineering studies to join IS because that is what was needed of him. However, after the expansion of the group in late 2014, things are now too quiet for his taste, until he is assigned a very special mission.

Flashbacks tells the story of these three main characters interconnected as they meet, work together, and fight against each other at a time when religious freedom and mobility has defined the UK as a true melting pot. However, the lives of Adam, Kaylah, and Ali are far more complicated, and as they prepare to celebrate Armistice Day, they all have different goals in mind. The novel is an outstanding representation of contemporary diversity in which religion plays a key role. The first in the Adam Taylor trilogy, it presents readers with the main character after whom the series is named, but also with Kaylah, one of the most impressive female characters I have encountered in recent political thrillers.

Written in a style clearly reminiscent of John Le Carré, Flashbacks shows the intimacy and social preoccupations that have characterised British crime fiction during the 20th century instead of just focusing on the action. With each chapter devoted to each of the main characters, the book inscribes the youth in the thriller tradition breaking away with middle-aged secret agents who have been doing their jobs for decades. Instead, Hall gives Millennials access to the Intelligence Services and reminds society that we can do some good work too.

Flashbacks is a thriller that will keep you in the edge of our seat until the very last page while also posting important questions to the reading audience. In current times, when religious extremism has changed the world as we know it, it is important to keep an open mind and go beyond essentialism believes and alt-right propaganda. The introduction of Ali’s IS ideals as a main character is a significant change in contemporary literature, even though, as a thriller, the book keeps a clear line between good and bad, and there is no space left for moral relativism. But, in a fast-paced thriller like this, there is no time for lucubrations, and that is OK.

Ofrenda a la tormenta by Dolores Redondo – Giving Closure to the Baztan Trilogy

Right after I finished reading The Lecagy of the Bones by Dolores Redondo I knew I had to read the next (and last) installment in the Baztán Trilogy. Keeping on the promise I made to myself to use the public library as much as I can, I borrowed Ofrenda a la Tormenta – ‘Offering to the Storm’, though there is no translation to English available yet – and I got lost in the dense greenery of the Baztán valley one last time.

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The story picks up right after The Legacy of the Bones, with D.I Amaia Salazar chasing the network of criminals that has been targeting the families of the Baztán valley for decades, and with her personal struggle with the handsome Judge Marquina. Even though I found the second novel in the series a real page-turner, Ofrenda a la tormeta despite its necessity to give closure to the story, does not equal The Legacy of the Bones in holding the reader’s attention. As Salazar tries to solve the case, her past comes to haunt her one more time in the form of dreams that become an over-used resource by Redondo, making me skip whole paragraphs without having any troubles following the story afterwards.

The novel’s strength lies in the cryptic combination of Amaia’s personal and professional struggles, as her husband James takes a secondary role, and her relationship with her son Ibai no longer plays such a big role in the creation of her own identity, which is to thank after the obsession with motherhood that plagued the previous novel. Instead, Amaia’s relationship with Judge Marquina takes a central role, making Salazar question the decisions that have shaped her life until she met him. However, Redondo does not offer a fresh take on female desire in crime fiction, and Amaia’s infatuation with the Judge takes a darker turn – no spoilers! – that will become the most remarkable struggle of the novel. As for the closure, the Baztán readers will get it as all the events from previous novels – that Redondo wisely brings up again with a few sentences – are tied together.

I was very, very disappointed by Ofrenda a la tormenta as the final installment in the most successful crime series in 21st century Spain. Questioned by a few fellow crime readers here, I had to admit that The Invisible Guardian is a good book, The Legacy of the Bones is a great one, but Ofrenda a la tormenta makes for a very poor ending. I think my main problem relied on how Redondo tells the story, and how Amaia’s issues with her mother, as well as her nightmares became tiring narrative strategies that tried to move the plot forward connecting Salazar’s past and present. However, I had no problem finishing the book, and I highly recommend it to anyone who has read the two previous installments as a way of finding closure.

As a Spanish crime fiction reader, I must say that I am really happy that Redondo’s books are also enjoying some success in more than 30 countries now. The novels have changed the way many people in this country perceive crime fiction, especially written by women. Even though the novels were a bit expensive (20€ each!), the publishers also released cheaper paperback editions and most local and public libraries have them as well. In an effort to expand the series’ success, a film adaptation combining the three novels is to be released the 3rd of March 2017, with Basque actress Marta Etura starring as Amaia. Here’s the trailer in Spanish. No spoilers!

If you have not heard of Dolores Redondo’s Baztán Trilogy, you can find more information here:

Review: Baztán Trilogy #1 – The Invisible Guardian

Review: Baztán Trilogy # 2 – The Legacy of the Bones

Exclusive Interview with Dolores Redondo for Books & Reviews

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh was one of the most talked-about books of 2016, especially as it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Not only that, but some of my favourite book bloggers kept raving about it, and after Naomi from The Writes of Woman said I would love it, I knew I had to give it a try. On the release of the paperback, I was sent a review copy by Vintage Books. Thank you!

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Eileen tells the story of twenty-four year old Eileen Dunlop just before her disappears from her stereotypically New England town in 1964. In the first chapter, we learn that she is telling the story from the present, fifty years after everything happened, and she warns us: ‘I was not myself back then. I was someone else. I was Eileen’. That Eileen works as a secretary at a boy’s prison while she cares for her alcoholic father. One day, a smart, elegant redhead called Rebecca appears at the prison and disrupts Eileen’s life. By the end of the first chapter, Eileen is clear about what the rest of the story is about: ‘In a week, I would run away from home and never go back. This is the story of how I disappeared’. The rest of the novel is organised daily, with Eileen and Rebecca’s relationship building up, slowly progressing to the day that, surprisingly for the reader, Eileen will be brave enough to break away with everything she has ever known.

So far, so good. The novel’s structure very much responds to classic crime fiction, with tension building up each day, making the reader wonder what path Eileen and Rebecca’s relationship will take. What will happen to make Eileen run away? Eileen has been widely described as a psychological thriller, and it is. But I was particularly interested in Moshfegh’s statements about the writing, and how they relate to the general perception we have about crime fiction as a highly structured subgenre beloved by the general public. In a very disruptive interview for The Guardian, Moshfegh said:

 [I] wanted to write a novel to start a career where I could live off publishing books. That was my prime motivation for writing Eileen. I thought, fine: I’ll play this game. And I still feel like I’m playing it […] Because there are all these morons making millions of dollars, so why not me? I’m smart and talented and motivated and disciplined and … talented: did I say that already? I said: fuck it. Which was also: fuck them. I was pretty hostile. I thought: I’ll show you how easy this is.

Although I am perfectly fine with the author’s desire to make a living off art- a right every artist should have – I was troubled by her implications that thrillers (and/or crime fiction in general) are a game to be played. As in any other subgenre, there are good books and bad books, but my own experience as a reader is that a good crime or mystery novel takes a lot of work, and is not an easy task. Moshfegh’s lack of knowledge about crime fiction was made patent when she continued:

Most people who pick up a book labelled ‘thriller’ or ‘mystery’ may not be expecting to confront troubling ideas about women in society … I couldn’t be like, Here’s my freak book … So I’ve disguised the ugly truth in a kind of spiffy noir package.

I wholeheartedly disagree. Good crime fiction’ raison d’être is to open discussions about gender, race, social class and morality, the very way Eileen does. Because let me make this clear right here right now: Eileen is a good novel, not a fascinating one, especially for crime fiction readers. The whole text feels like a character study of the anti-femme fatale, and that is fine. Gildas no longer run the world. But, going back to the consideration of crime fiction and popular literature, I am afraid Eileen is built on a conservative approach to crime fiction as a minor subgenre that is meant to just sell books in a package. Said package refers to the overused formulas of genre fiction, that, however: ‘ease the transition between old and new ways of expressing things and thus contribute to cultural unity’ (John G. 1976:  35 – 36). After these disruptive statements, Moshfegh was interviewed by the team at Virago, and she admitted she did not like how she came off in her Guardian interview as arrogant (whether or not this was damage control, that is for each of us to judge):

Eileen is plagued with scatological references, as well as vivid descriptions of the main character’s lack of personal hygiene, and her narcissistic personality. There are also references to Eileen’s virginity and her struggle to negotiate her sexual desire with her own body, which she finds disgusting. Moshfegh has admitted she has suffered eating issues since her adolescence, making her main character an informed user of laxatives, enemas and a compulsive control of her eating habits. Unhappy with her life, and unable to escape it, present-day Eileen describes her past self as a prude who wanted to erase her own body and exert control over her only subject: Herself.

All these characteristic definitely make Eileen a different book, as it insists on still necessary conversation of including non-likable female characters in contemporary literature. Instead of a thriller, I would label Eileen as a complex character study about femininity, domestic roles, family duties, morality, institutionalisation, and the importance of empowering women through knowledge of their own bodies and the outside world. I would definitely recommend it, especially after all the blurb. However, if you are an avid crime fiction reader, Moshfegh does not adhere to the tradition as much as she think she does. The main crimes perpetrated in Eileen are the main character’s total subjection to her father, and her desperate desire to escape her miserable life, which, from a feminist perspective, earn the book a recommendation.

Legado en los huesos (The Legacy of the Bones) by Dolores Redondo – Baztan Trilogy #2

As I visited the public library to return Ferrante #4 last December, I stumbled upon Dolores Redondo’s Legado en los huesos (The Legacy of the Bones) in the New Books section. As I eyed the familiar cover – all the Spanish editions share a similar cover, with greenery and a woman – I realised that it had been a year since I had read El guardián invisible (The Invisible Guardian), the first installment in the series. I realised then, it would just be perfect to put an end to 2016 the same way I had started it: By returning to Baztán.

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Legado en los huesos takes place as Amaia Salazar gives birth and is forced to return to Elizondo, where a local church has been vandalised. If El guardián invisible was constructed over the greenery and the scenery typical of Navarra and the Northern part of Spain, then Legado en los huesos highlights the unique political environment of the area. Amaia, despite being in charge of the team now, sees herself investigating the desecration of a local church because a high-ranking prelate from the Opus Dei specifically requests her. The right-wing organisation is extremely powerful in Navarra, where they are in charge of the most prestigious Medicine college of the country. Their influence is however greater than that, and the novel is built on Amaia’s struggles to reconcile her job and her new role as a mother, and the Catholic doctrine with the pagan beliefs of Elizondo.

Amaia’s recent maternity and mother-child relationships take again a central role in the narrative as she gives birth to a baby boy, instead of the girl they were expecting, and she struggles to become the mother she has pictured herself to be. Redondo makes an effort to include the difficult task of caring for a newborn, even though Amaia always has James by her side. Post-natal depression, as well as remorse, sleep-deprivation, and the importance of finding time with her husband make up for most of the main character’s personal arch. I found Amaia’s views on motherhood a bit old-fashioned, especially when she tries to put her son’s breastfeeding above everything,  and she refuses to let it interfere with her work. However, all her worries disperse throughout the book when she accepts help from James and Engrasi to take care of the baby, and she recovers some personal space and time. Some of that personal space will be clouded by Judge Markina’s interest in Amaia, posting questions about flirting, infidelity, love, and marriage, thus giving adding even more depth to the main character.

It is a bit difficult to describe the crime that sets the plot into motion because everything is directly linked to the events on the previous book. So, if you have not read El guardián invisible, Legado en los huesos is not a good place to start. As Amaia investigates the desecration of a church in Elizondo, Johana Marquez’s father commits suicide in jail, leaving a strange message for Amaia that sends the whole team into a thrilling investigation during the cold, wet and dark winter of Northern Spain. Personally, I was thrilled to see our short and wet days inscribed in popular literature, as we do not get much sun and warmth in the North of Spain, where we share more similarities with England than with Barcelona. The return to her hometown will also help Amaia deal with her traumatic relationship with her mother, as well as with her older sisters, Flora and Ros. Tía Engrasi is always present in the background, taking the role of mother, confident, and now grandmother to Amaia’s kid, as well as facilitator of the family’s return to the town. Without giving anything away, Amaia will discover a dark family secret that will change her forever. All these stories are entwined with the Basque mythology that made El guardián invisible such a distinctive book.

Legado en los huesos is a an even better read than El guardián invisible, though longer and darker. Despite my passion for crime fiction, I found myself agitated and unable to read this book during bedtime due to Redondo’s masterful story-telling skills. The crimes Amaia investigates also take a darker turn, and although I do not want to give anything away, please beware the book contains graphic descriptions of violence against children and teenagers (as did the previous installment), as well as desecration of Catholic places. If you can bear that, then you are in for one of the best books written in Spain in recent years.

The Lie by C.L. Taylor

I think I must have heard about crime fiction author C.L. Taylor where I usually do, over Twitter. With time, I saw how some fellow bloggers praised her novels, and when I found myself browsing Waterstones Cardiff last year I came upon her novel The Lie and I bought it.

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The reason to choose The Lie among Taylor’s novels was simple and easy: The story involves Jane, a young, female main character who lives in a cottage in rural Wales, works at an animal sanctuary, and has a dark past. As I was spending my last morning in Cardiff, unsure on when I could return to Wales, I decided it would be a great idea to buy something to remind of my good times there. Also if you follow me on Instragram, you know I am an animal lover and my love for The Puppy has him spoilt rotten. At first sight, The Lie seemed the perfect novel for me, and it was.

I could not put the book down from chapter 1 up until the very end. Jane Hughes has a supposedly common life in rural Wales until an anonymous person makes sure she knows her past is not buried. The back of the novel already informs readers of a dark turn in an international escape Jane and her friends embarked on five years earlier. Taylor masterfully tells both stories in first person, shifting between Jane’s present and past and making it easy for readers to follow the change in time and setting.

The present follows Jane as she tries to hide her past and rebuild her life in Wales. But the story about her past was made even more interesting by the dynamics between the four friends who embarked on the trip. As I was reading, their relationships reminded of Lena Durham’s TV show Girls, and how female friendship is achievable in a patriarchal context, yet complex. Meanwhile, the story set in the present keeps the reader interested in the past, but also in Jane’s evolution as a person. Who is she really? And what is she hiding? Is it possible to leave your past behind and start a new life?

The crime(s) in the book are outstanding, since Taylor questions what is a crime and how it should affect the people involved. Is Jane’s new life a crime? Does she have a right to create a new identity and lie to everyone in Wales about who she really is? But, things do not end there, and Taylor makes a magnificent use of crime fiction’s ability to question society by including violence towards animals as a crime that too many times goes unpunished.

The Lie is the first novel that I read by C.L. Taylor, but certainly not the last one. It is a gripping crime novel with a very interesting and complex female main character who engages in a diverse of relationships with other women (friends, mother-daughter, employer-employee). I would recommend The Lie to anyone who is looking for a page-turner and wants to be left wanting more, soon.