Friday, June 05, 2015

What We're Reading: Young Adult Noir

Four years ago, Alice Gates’s sister, Annie, left. Alice doesn’t know why. She walked in on Annie and her parents arguing. Alice isn’t sure what the argument was about, but it caused Annie to walk out of the house and out of their lives. The last thing Annie said to Alice was “Don’t believe anything they say.” Alice wasn’t sure what to make of that four years ago, and she is still wondering.

Alice just received a call from County General Hospital. Annie has been admitted there. Her back is broken. Her skull is fractured in multiple places, and she is in a coma. Someone beat her savagely, and left her to die. Alice has no idea who would do this or why, and Annie can’t tell her, so Alice has decided to find out. Her search will take her into a world that she has only experienced, until now, through movies and the pulp mysteries she loves to read, but this world is darker than anything Alice has seen or read about; a single misstep could put Alice herself in the hospital or in the morgue.  

In Dead To Me, first-time novelist Mary McCoy takes readers to the seedy side of post World War II Hollywood for a noir-influenced mystery/thriller. The mysteries surrounding Annie’s assault--both who and why--are revealed as Alice investigates the few leads she has. The story is dark and convoluted, but in ways that are typical for the genre. In fact, with the restraint McCoy employs when describing the details surrounding the crimes, and the noted lack of profanity in the dialogue, Dead To Me is more like a classic noir story than many other contemporary attempts to capture the feel of period detective novels (which had strict cultural limitations imposed on them at the time regarding the use of both).

This may be due to the book's target audience--young adults--or may simply reflect McCoy’s skill at capturing the tone of the period. Perhaps it is a happy confluence of the two. Given the current extremes to which adult mystery literature will go, with gruesome descriptions and often gratuitous gory details, McCoy illustrates well the adage that sometimes less is more! All of the normal trappings of a noir story are present (intrepid gumshoes, torch-singing dames, corrupt cops, late night rendezvous, mysterious characters who may have a heart of gold, and lots of strong black coffee). The only real break from classic noir is that the story and characters are admirably infused with some 21st-century sensibilities. The women in Dead to Me are much stronger (and allowed more freedoms) than may have been possible in the 1940s (or at least as portrayed in books or films). But this is a nit only to be picked by readers familiar with the classics of the genre; I wager most YA readers will not even notice. 

Dead To Me is an impressive debut novel, and a thrilling stroll through the shadow-infused back alleys of the classic pulp crime novel.

Editor's note: I concur with Daryl's response. Although this has been published as a YA novel, it just reads like a good noir mystery whose protagonist happens to be 16. I liked the details, her characters were as interesting as they were diverse, and the mystery was a good one!

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