Don’t judge a book by its cover, some might say. But this one, a throwback to vintage pulp fiction, drew me in fast. As a fan of film noir, I already had a taste for hard-boiled crime. Not only is the cover to die for, so is the title – Death Was The Other Woman – and its mordant wit sets the tone perfectly, casting a shadow over the narrative as the reader hunts for the elusive ‘whodunnit’.
Thankfully, Linda L. Richards has ventured far beyond superficial pastiche. The period details are sharply-drawn yet unobrusive, and her Depression-era Los Angeles has an unsettling atmosphere of gaudy glamour chased by gloom. What places this book in a league of its own is the main protagonist, an unforgettable heroine in her own right.
The well-bred Kitty Pangborn finds herself in reduced circumstances, and takes a lowly job as a secretary to Dexter J. Theroux, a bourbon-slugging detective with a murky past. Far from being merely decorative, Kitty is at once the wide-eyed observer and daring sleuth, trailing hunches when her boss flakes out. Her forays into the underworld are punctuated by pithy one-liners and inventive plotting that packs an emotional punch, taking the reader on a sometimes dangerous, but thrilling journey.
Transforming her Girl Friday from drudge to streetwise Nancy Drew, Richards subverts a formerly male-led genre. She makes Kitty true to her generation, and not a time-traveller from CSI. Dexter, and his associate Mustard, represent the tough guys, exuding worldly charm while never diverting attention from their leading lady. But if Kitty is the detective, what role is left for the obligatory femme fatale? Actually, there are several – vampish Rita; golden girl Brucie; and ice queen Lila. Each plays their part as the riddle deepens.
Richards’s characterisation is memorable, and her prose never less than elegant. Deceptively simple, each short chapter builds suspense and is wryly funny and thought-provoking. By giving her characters a back-story, Richards ensures them a future. They linger in the mind long after the tale is over, paving the way for a sequel (Death Was In The Picture, due in 2009.)