This was the first of a trio of mysteries set in Seattle featuring amateur sleuth Pam Nilsen, who with her sister Penny runs a printing business (inherited from their parents) as a cooperative. A radical lesbian typesetter collective expresses an interest in a merger to reduce costs. That night, after a difficult initial meeting between the two groups, the typesetter’s is trashed and the next day one of Pam’s staff is shot and killed in his office. Was he the one who trashed the office and was killed in revenge?
I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge; and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.
“Just how do you think Best Printing is going to survive if you’re spending all your time playing Nancy Drew?”
This isn’t a particularly complex detective story, a searing social indictment or an in-depth character study either – but I enjoyed it a lot all the same. Right from the title it made me smile, bringing back memories of the 1970s and early 80s when being a left-wing radical wasn’t a dirty word and being idealistic still seemed like a good life choice. Predictably though, this also means that it contains a lot of special pleading and bumper sticker agitprop, leading to its main weakness as it tries to pack its narrative with a somewhat unseemly number of hot topics, including: racism, homophobia, the white woman’s burden, police brutality, alcoholism, the corrupt regime of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, FBI surveillance. And yeah, it also would have been nice if at least one male hadn’t turned out to be weak, despicable or an ass****e. It’s not that this isn’t necessarily true some of time (or even a lot of time) but here it can feel decidedly forced. For instance, after establishing that a major (female) suspect can be a rather nasty drunk, this is immediately followed up with a couple of sentences to establish that this is actually the fault of her alcoholic father. Then there is a scene that is played as creepy but which just seems strident now, in which Pam turns against a young male member of staff (the recently deceased one) not because he was (deep breath) a drug dealer, two-timing his girlfriend (another staff member), a blackmailer, a reputed FBI informer, and a forger of immigration documents (and as such, since they were done at the printing premises, could have got the other members of the collective potentially incarcerated for years). No, what makes Pam and her new friend Hadley shudder in horror is finding copies of Hustler magazines hidden under his bed!
“I never would have thought …” she began.
“… that I’d turn out gay?”
So, only women get respect, sympathy and a second chance in this story and all men are in the first instance always treated with suspiscion if not outright hostility. And yet, I actually rather enjoyed this one, mostly because Pam and her friends are depicted with great sincerity and as people I’d certainly like to meet (well, assuming they would let me through the door for a cup of java). The radical printing business might seem an unlikely springboard for a detective series, but this also proves to be a particularly emotional investigation for Pam, who in the course of the story ‘comes out’ (to her great surprise) and thus became one of the first recurring lesbian protagonists in mystery fiction. She is also very gauche and naive and lacking in confidence, forever berating herself as she re-examines her political, social and sexual credentials, always comparing herself with her twin sister, who is much more confident. So yes, while there are a fair amount of ‘right on’ statements on left-wing politics, sexual identity etc, this is an engaging mystery in the sense that we want to find out what happens next (though admittedly there is no sense of jeopardy or much momentum as it reaches its low-key conclusion) but because the characters are people who for the most part want to fight for a number of causes to improve society and make the world a better and fairer place – amen to that.
Barbara Ellen Wilson, who since 2000 has written as Barbara Sjoholm, wrote two further books featuring Nilsen before starting another brief series featuring Cassandra Reilly. The Wilson mysteries are no longer in print (on paper), but they were published as ebooks by Open Road Media in 2013. You can read about the author at her website, www.barbarasjoholm.com/.
I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘borrow’ category (thanks Mum):