Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Granite Moth - Erica Wright (2015)

Full disclosure: Erica Wright is my friend.  I decided to read this book because, of course I want to read books my friends have written--particularly those that get national attention.  I had always known Erica to be a poet, not a crime fiction writer.  I was unaware of The Red Chameleon when it came out, and perhaps I only became aware of The Granite Moth due to a visit from our mutual friend Kristen Linton, and what seemed to be greater publicity on Facebook.  I checked it out from the Chicago Public Library, so it seems to have been made readily available.  I am not sure what criteria goes into stocking the nation's public libraries, but Erica has made it, at least here.

Normally I don't read these types of books, but Triple Homicide and Identical come to mind.  So they seem like ideal comparison points.  Of these three, The Granite Moth has the most intriguing subject matter and is my overall favorite.  However, it does suffer from various convolutions and editorial weaknesses, though it is generally well-written.

Kathleen Stone is a private investigator, formerly employed by the NYPD.  As the novel opens, she is at the Halloween parade along 6th Ave., observing the festivities and waiting to meet her contact, Ellis Decker, who is still on the force and may have some information about an illegal operation run out of an exclusive members-only restaurant, the Skyview Lounge, by Salvatore Magrelli, or someone else in his family.  Magrelli is a crime boss that no one can seem to find any evidence against, and it seems to me like he is the antagonist from The Red Chameleon, but I can't be sure.  Basically, it feels like this book would have been enhanced by more knowledge of the previous one.

Kathleen (Kat) also has a friend named Dolly, who is a female impersonator at The Pink Parrot, a club in the West Village.  The club has a float in the parade, and at a certain moment, a juggler with flaming batons gets shoved, and the float erupts into a fire.  There are a couple deaths and Dolly is badly burnt and believes that it was not an accident.

Soon after, Kat dons a disguise and goes to the Skyview Lounge, where she gets into the poker game.  This was actually one of my favorite scenes in the novel.  One of the themes is how broke Kat is, and it's pretty ridiculous to see her throw away pretty much all of her life savings on a buy-in.  However, before she can leave, the dealer, Ernesto, is poisoned and dies on the scene.

Thus there are two competing mysteries--was the fire on the Pink Parrot float intentional, and who poisoned Ernesto?  Ultimately the resolution is not as surprising as it might be, but along the way there are many coincidences.  Actually, I don't think I understand the resolution.  When Ernesto's murderer is revealed at the end, I have a somewhat difficult time accepting it.

There are many characters in this novel, and like the other two "true crime" books previously reviewed, it becomes difficult to follow.  Perhaps the most compelling lead that Kat uncovers is the Zeus Society, which is a kind of gay conversion hate group.  They protest outside the funeral of the two young men killed on the parade float.

I don't want to try to name all of the characters and how they are involved in love "squares" (rather than triangles), but suffice to say, it is not easy to keep track of who they are and what they have done.  Nor would I want to get into Meeza (Kat's assistant) and her boyfriend V.P. and how he becomes another suspect towards the end (again I still don't understand what he actually did, apart from appearing menacing).

This story is really about Kathleen Stone, and how her disguises allow her to become different "characters."  It is almost as if Erica is writing her to have multiple personalities, and it is a nice motif how all of her alter-egos start with the letter K (Kennedy, Katya, Kate).  Here, she is discussing which disguise to use at the "other" club in the West Village, Tongue:

"'I was thinking I might go as Keith,' I said after a pause, and Dolly laughed.  The sound was spontaneous rather than mean, and I found myself laughing, too, even though I hadn't been joking.  Maybe I hadn't thought this one completely through, but I sometimes passed myself off as a teenager named Keith by slipping into some skater clothes and slicking down my boy-short hair.  It was one of my favorite disguises, a sure-fire way to be left alone.
'Not if you want to get into the place.  It's gayboy bunny or nothing.'" (109)

Which leads to my question: what is gayboy bunny? (Sorry, but that is my favorite phrase used in the novel.)

I am not normally in the habit of pointing out typos, but I found at least five (on pp. 147, 155, 203, along with a couple others earlier in the book).  Perhaps this focus on the trivial and mundane (but incorrect) comes from my brief stint as a proofreader.  Most of the chapters are relatively short--there are 29--and the book itself is pretty short at 233 pages.  It's a good read overall, but my primary complaint is the editing.  I think the novel would have been strengthened if there were fewer characters and if their stories could have been developed a bit more deeply.  As it stands the book is a bit of a mess, but it's held together by Kat, and her fast-paced narration.  In a way, the novel works because Kat is so confused by what she sees and hears and how it all fits together, such that the reader does not necessarily feel as lost as they might normally be.

In sum, I was surprised to read this book.  I did not expect it out of Erica, and while this type of genre is not what I normally gravitate towards, it was a nice diversion, and I enjoyed some of the scenes and situations presented.  It would appear that Erica has created a character, and an anthology series, that could become quite popular.  Her story does not seem to be over at the end of this book, and perhaps she will go on towards a more straightforward adventure next.  However, true crime mystery thrillers rarely are.