When Todd Mason wrote on his Sweet Freedom blog about the neglect of SF writer Thomas M. Disch, this immediately struck a chord. I realised that not only did I know very little of the man’s work but that what little I had read of his was from a very long time ago. So it is a great pleasure to be able to include one of his books at Fedora, a collaboration with John Sladek, another overlooked SF author who strayed into the mystery genre. It was originally published as by ‘Thom Demijohn’ and begins on the last day of school …
I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.
“When grown-ups could be so stupid, sometimes it seemed the course of wisdom to remain a child”
Both a clever thriller and a wicked social satire, Black Alice ingeniously fuses Lewis Carroll with the burgeoning Civil Rights movement of the mid 1960s to produce what is certainly one of the best – and best-written – thrillers I’ve read this year. The novel – subtitled ‘an evil fairytale’ – tells the story of Alice, the eleven-year-old heir to a vast fortune. Her grandfather decided to skip a generation, disappointed by the marriage of his hypochondriac daughter Delphinia to feckless student Roderick (a name Sladek would of course use again …), and put all the money in trust for Alice, governed by her Uncle Jason. Her parents have little interest in the girl other than her money, having to ‘make do’ with $10,000 a year as well as free place to live. Delphinia spends all her life in bed, dreaming of the life of comfort she could have had were it not for the terms of the will, uncaring that her daughter has been behaving very strangely …
“My life has been nothing but one long sickness. So don’t talk to me about Alice! Schizophrenia – my ass! What’s schizophrenia compared with arthritis?”
Blonde and blue-eyed Alice has in fact created an alter-ego, a black version of herself named Dinah, who can speak directly of the things troubling the girl. More than just an invisible friend, this has threatened to top her over into full-blown psychosis, something only avoided through the ministrations of her kindly Uncle and a loving governess. Alice starts to improve and Dinah recedes further into her unconscious – this until one day when Alice is kidnapped for a $1 million ransom and spirited away from her home in Baltimore to Norfolk, Virginia. She is deposited in an old funeral parlour that is now a small-scale brothel. In a nice riff on the character’s equivalent identity crisis in Lewis Carroll’s original Wonderland, to keep Alice hidden she is given a pill that turns her skin black, her hair is cut, curled and dyed. The madam and girls of the brothel insist she now be known as Dinah and her initial excitement turns to fear – until Dinah once again emerges to help survive, a moment triggered by the revelation of who has in fact organised her kidnapping.
“Am I kidnapped?” she asked, just to make sure.
“Uh-huh. Relax, kid. It ‘aint going to be as bad as all that.”
As we learn who is behind Alice’s predicament and the bodies start to pile up, Alice and her new companions go on the run and ultimately get mixed up in a riot instigated by the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan, who are trying to stop a visit from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). As divisions within the ranks of the KKK appear (one of them turns out to be an undercover FBI agent) and a full-scale riot is averted, Alice – or rather, Dinah – gets interviewed on local TV and asked if she thinks she should be treated the same as white children … In the meantime, the one behind the kidnapping wants her dead, as do the members of the Klan who managed to avoid getting arrested. Well plotted and full of literary cleverness and fun, with an arresting turn of phrase to be found on almost any page, this is a superbly engaging satire, valuable for its wry commentary and clever tinkering with the thriller structure. Miss it at your peril.
As John Clute in the invaluable and frankly awe-inspiring Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (www.sf-encyclopedia.com/) has said of these two authors:
“Disch was perhaps the most respected, least trusted, most envied and least read of all modern sf writers of the first rank” (see more here)
“Sladek always addressed the heart of the genre, but never gained due renown. We needed his attention, which we got: he deserved ours, which he did not receive” (see more here)
I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘Colour in the title’ category: