by Laurel Flores Fantauzzo
In American cities, wealthy power brokers act unseen, some plunging into criminality for their own ends. Their corruption varies: Some work to their own material advantage; others wield their perversions and desires over the vulnerable; still others resort to wanton brutality, reveling in their impunity. When institutions fail to stop these antagonists, it’s up to individuals to respond: with helplessness, with justice, or with retribution. This month, Booked and Printed examines two novels with women combatting power gone rotten on both coasts. One is a professional blackmailer in Los Angeles, the other, an attorney near Atlantic City. Their journeys take place on opposite sides of the law, and opposite sides of the country. But with different means, and different ends, both combat dangerous men.
In Halley Sutton’s debut novel, The Lady Upstairs, Jo has never met her boss, an obscure manager known to her only as the titular Lady. But she’s deep in the dirty work she does on The Lady’s behalf. In the swanky hotels, tawdry diners, and tiki bars of Los Angeles, Jo seduces the city’s most libidinous, wretched, powerful men. Working in tandem with Robert Jackal, her gambling-addicted, sometime lover, sometime collaborator, and Lou, a freckled seductress, Jo makes sure her encounters are photographed. Then she fleeces the men for thousands of dollars, with the biggest cut going to The Lady.
While Jo has spent most of her dwindling energy for romance on men, Lou, with her “coiled auburn hair and bright friendly eyes,” is the true object of Jo’s longing and affection—a crooked-smiling, hard-dealing, clever woman who recruited Jo into their conspiratorial profession. When Jo hires Ellen, a young aspiring actress, to take down their next mark, Jo underestimates the effects of her own coercion. A job against a loathsome Hollywood producer swerves toward catastrophe, throwing Jo into ever more horrifying depths of what blackmail and self-preservation truly require. Meanwhile, the notorious Los Angeles Police Department awaits its own cut from The Lady and her employees.
Taking its place in the tradition of noir, with all of noir’s cynicism, its jaundiced views of modern capitalism, and its inherent pessimism toward human relationships, The Lady Upstairs is masterful. Sutton’s biting language has its own grim, hard rhythm: When Jo watches Ellen cry, her assessment is ruthless. “Bright, brimming eyes: check. Swollen lips: oh, sure. Color in your cheeks but no snot running: perfect. And then think to yourself, Yep, heartbreak, nailed it.” When Jo remembers an earlier version of herself, heartbroken over a boyfriend, she feels contempt. “I used to be a little piggy, oinking for love.” She’s sure her protégé, Ellen, will graduate into the same cynicism—a fatal estimation.
For Jo, every emotion and every relationship is a performance, full of falsity—except her own devotion toward Lou, to whom she clings, and for whom she feels more loyalty than the Lady who holds the purse, the power, and the connections. Jo hopes one final con targeting Mitch Carrigan, a blue-blooded would-be politician, will lead to a stronger bond with Lou, and perhaps freedom from The Lady’s control once and for all.
“People read so much into stars,” Jo muses. “In my city we’d gotten rid of all that and put in its place something brighter and harder that never went out, so you could barely even see those stars at all. I preferred it that way.” Sutton’s interpretation of the city, and the criminal camaraderie of women wreaking vengeance on the lechers of Los Angeles, will linger; it’s deliciously bitter, brutal, and shudder-inducing.
Erin McCabe has never had a client quite like Sharise Barnes. And yet they share a bond, a characteristic between them that offers an implicit, shared understanding: They are transgender women, though differing in race, class, profession, and destiny. Erin is a well-off Caucasian criminal attorney in her thirties. Sharise is an African American nineteen-year-old sex worker, often homeless, abandoned by her parents, and accused of murder. The dead man is William E. Townsend, Jr., the son of a powerful New Jersey state senator. William Sr. has no strong grief over his son’s tawdry death in a motel near Atlantic City. But he won’t relax his grip on power, or ease his ambitions. So he’ll do everything in his considerable power to prevent Sharise and Erin from revealing William Jr.’s real nature.
By Way of Sorrow is attorney Robyn Gigl’s debut novel; her professional expertise shines in propulsive legal arguments and legal tasks that make up important work on behalf of a vulnerable client. But the novel has some missteps. It’s told in omniscient third person, and some transitions between points of view are initially confusing, leaving the reader wondering who is talking when. And Sharise’s character, while an important inclusion, veers from abject victimhood to attitudinal vernacular. More written depth into nuances of Sharise’s own interiority, her own capacity for emotion and reflection outside of simply experiencing violence, would have helped bring her more to the forefront of the novel, with deserved, equal standing to Erin McCabe.
Erin’s scenes are the strongest of the book (perhaps it might have been helped to have written the book in the first person, from Erin’s point of view). The plot takes place in the mid 2000s, prior to the current, growing public awareness of transgender lives in 2020. Erin’s personal maneuverings at work illuminate the daily grace with which she is forced to walk through her world.
She endures oblivious, chauvinistic missteps from coworkers and acquaintances, outright hostility from conservative judges and attorneys who call transgender people deluded and manipulative, and physical threats from sadistic, transphobic brutes. Her relationship with her mother, an accepting, good-humored guide, offers a balm. Her interactions with her nephews are particularly touching: After their father, Erin’s brother, rejects her, the boys send a loving email to Erin following her transition and invite her to their soccer games. In between the fluctuations of her personal life, Erin uncovers circles of dangerous, violent corruption that reach far beyond the bloody encounter between Sharise and the dead man in the motel.
While some of its narration feels unintentionally awkward, By Way of Sorrow is an imperfect but important attempt to humanize transgender lives in the American criminal justice system. It’s a notable entry into the genre of legal thrillers, and an intriguing look at how unique women might fight for justice, though powerful men would prefer the opposite.