Monday, February 29, 2016

Darkness, Drowning, and a Drug-Danger Landscape in THE NINTH LIFE, Clea Simon

Ready for some shocks to the heart and mind? THE NINTH LIFE from Clea Simon releases on March 1, the start of this Massachusetts ex-journalist's fourth crime fiction series. But if you think you already know all about Clea Simon because you've read her other books, forget it. THE NINTH LIFE is tough, gritty, urban, and often violent -- and can best be read as if it were a debut for both the author and the series, with its radical new direction.

Before you read further, think about this: There's a release party for this book at the Harvard Book Store. Got that? The cover may have a cat on it, but Simon is tackling grim and serious issues, in a fast-paced mystery that depends on Blackie, the cat on the cover, being able to somehow communicate to his human partner Care what he's able to discover:
The night's shelter has done me good. I leap and land with a grace I'd not remembered, and my satisfaction is deeper than vanity. I am on a hunt, and I cannot afford to fail.
Haunted as he is by the moment when he seems to have woken into this cat body after being drowned in a culvert -- from what form? for what reason? -- Blackie is nevertheless the ultimate rational investigator, persistent and straightforward and without scruple. That puts him in opposition to Care; even though she's at once his guardian and partner, grasping his needs without entrapping him, he soon realizes she's trapped by her emotional attachments to the group of homeless, battered kids she's hanging out with. And the criminal and drug-pushing gang maneuvering them through the harshest regions of the city, wherever it is.

In a recent interview in The Big Thrill, Simon spoke of her drive to cut new terrain in this book, deeper and darker than in her other series: to probe the nature of isolation, as well as the bonds people forge with their self-made "family of choice." For Blackie and Care, the guardianship Care assumes so passionately for both the independent Blackie and the very dependent (and drug-addicted) boy Tick come into inevitable conflict.

And by the end of the second chapter, it's clear that Tick's mistakes are costing everyone at the most basic and dangerous levels, as Care herself reveals while Blackie evaluates the scene:
Her voice has tightened. I sense the others listening.

"He had a message. I was supposed to find you. Only --" He breaks off. Kicks at the dirt. ... "He said someone is weighing down the scale. That you'd know what to do. That Fat Peter wasn't on the level."

"Fat Peter?" She's leaning in. "He said that?"

... "I figured I could do it. I mean, I'm sorry you won't get the coin --"

"The coin?" She explodes, spitting the word out. "I'm not thinking of the coin. This was a message, Tick. A message. If you had found me, if you'd told me this before, maybe I could have saved him."
For all the efforts Care makes to provide affection and direction to the ragged crew around her, the dire and hungry poverty drilling into them and the siren call of "the scat," the drug that Tick's embraced, keep driving this group into worse risks and greater danger.

Simon nails (sometimes brutally) the cruelty and costs of living on the street and wrestling with people who aren't trustworthy. Blackie serves as blunt narrator of this dark world where there is no social safety net. Trading sex, drugs, and deals is a terrible way to get by. And it's raising the cost of what Care will have to pay if she's ever going to pull Tick back out of danger.

There are mysteries here beyond the crime narrative. What city are Blackie, Care, and Tick inhabiting? And when? Some aspects speak of the eras of the guilds in medieval Europe -- others of some barren and fire-blighted sections of modern New York City or Detroit. And what about Blackie -- does the "ninth life" refer to his ninth time as a cat, or has be been human at some point in the past? What chance does Care have to make a life for herself, beyond what she needs to do for Tick?

The book's stunning finale begs a sequel, and it's good to know there's one in the works. I'll be watching in particular to see whether THE NINTH LIFE trickles out of the adult (and cat-centered) categories, toward the young-adult dystopian fanatical readers, who'll recognize something from other worlds and other despairs in these pages.

This isn't an easy book to read. It has the rough edges of a deliberately coarse narrative, and the darkness of an "Oliver Twist." I had moments when I objected to being held in prolonged suspense, and wanted more assurance of loyalty and growth. But this sensation seemed also to fit with the nightmare of homelessness that Simon evokes, and most of the time, I accepted it as the price for a very new kind of crime fiction.

I'm looking forward to the next in this new series -- from Severn House, bringing out an American edition, which almost guarantees a modest print run and the need for collectors to get quickly into action. Don't miss the chance.

[PS - Simon is releasing two books on the same date. Please check the adjacent review here.]

1 comment:

Clea Simon said...

Wow, thank you, Beth! Just ... thank you