Lou Berney’s Long and Faraway Gone told two mystery stories from two perspectives in both the present and the past, and Berney knocked it out of the park, in my opinion. Next up for consideration for the MWA Edgar for Best Paperback Original is Gordon McAlpine and Woman With a Blue Pencil. This book also tells two stories… and even a third. And it’s pretty amazing as well, if a little convoluted.
A prologue of sorts sets it up, laying out the historical context. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt orders the relocation of American residents of Japanese ancestry to internment camps. And on August 30, 2014, “A dusty lockbox is found…” The box containers a 1945 pulp spy thriller by William Thorne, a pack of letters from the book’s editor to its author, and a handwritten manuscript.
And on McAlpine goes, toggling back and forth between the three items, starting out with “The Revised” by Takumi Sato. This novella features Japanese-American detective Sam Sumida and tells the story of Sam’s investigation of the murder of his own wife, Kyoko. Then comes a letter from Maxine Wakefield, Sato’s editor and the woman with the aforementioned blue pencil. She point out that now is maybe not good time for a Japanese hero – make him Korean! – and perhaps make him a valiant patriot fighting the Japanese. (That would really sell.) Then on to William Thorne’s novel, “The Orchid and the Secret Agent,” which has much in common with Sato’s, but features a Korean-American detective, Jimmy Park. Thorne’s book is very hard-boiled spy thriller.
And so it goes that editor Maxine offers helpful suggestions to the author, and he molds the Jimmy Park story to satisfy her, while putting his own vision into Sam Sumida’s story. It’s like a literary version of the movie Sliding Doors, where two stories with much in common also diverge widely. (For example, a character dies in one book, but lives in the other. And Kyoko is a sweet and loving woman in one, and the malevolent “Orchid” in the other.)
McAlpine makes it work. I found myself drawn into Sumida’s quest, amazed by Park’s adventures, but mostly engaged in the relationship between Sato and his editor, which my brain insisted as interpreting as “the real story.” Although all of it is 100% fiction, of course. The historical context is emphasized in the postscript, which briefly outlines what happened to author Sato and what became of his editor, Maxine Wakefield.
So how does Pencil stack up against Gone? Each is unique in its own way. Each shows a great deal of creativity, but Woman with a Blue Pencil seems contrived, even labored. I found The Long and Faraway Gone to be much more emotionally engaging. So Berney’s book stays at #1.
Literary Lunchbox Edgar Ranking: Best Paperback Original