woman-with-a-blue-pencil

What becomes of a character cut from a writer's working manuscript?

“... McAlpine has skillfully melded the mood of rage at Japanese treachery and bits of Hammett-era noir with the sensibilities of metafiction and postmodernism into a truly original crime novel.” -- Booklist

Woman with a Blue Pencil: Excerpt

…The rain had stopped and Sam Sumida stood for a moment on the sidewalk outside his house. Aside from the lights burning inside, everything looked as he had left it. He couldn’t help thinking about Kyoko, who had picked out the bungalow from among those in Echo Park they could afford. The neighborhood was reasonably safe and centrally located, with a lovely urban park near enough that he and his wife planned to one day walk there hand-in-hand with their children. But there were no children and there never would be. There was no Kyoko.

Still, Sam couldn’t help remembering.

They had held a housewarming party in the backyard just three years before. Friends and family had come. Dr. Shinoda, whose thriving Little Tokyo dental practice Kyoko managed, brought champagne and toothbrushes for everyone. The head of the art department at UCLA had brought, as a housewarming present, a print signed by Diego Rivera. It hung in the living room. Kyoko loved the print. She loved the house. She loved Sam too, at least for a while. But some bastard with a .22 ended all possibilities of their ever being happy again. Why? It had fallen to Sam to find out.

He took a deep breath.

This night had been confusing, disheartening, soaking wet. But it was just one night. His mind was playing tricks. A good sleep would change everything. He reminded himself that he had no pressing problems save one: finding Kyoko’s killer. Nothing else mattered.

He started forward, then stopped.

Somehow, the house didn’t feel the same.

Of course, the place had become something different eleven months before. His aunt and uncle had suggested he sell, that sleeping in the room he had shared with Kyoko couldn’t be healthy. Sugitaru wa nao oyobazaru ga gotoshi. “Let what is past flow away downstream,” his aunt said, being aggravatingly fond of maxims. But he didn’t want to let go, to move forward. The only movement he wanted was backward, and that was impossible. So he hadn’t sold the place, even when his aunt further pressed him, reminding him of Kyoko’s unfaithfulness: Akusai wa hyaku-non no fusaku. “A bad wife spells a hundred years of bad harvest.” But Sam didn’t see Kyoko that way, whatever turn their marriage had taken. He stayed in the house. Nonetheless, it had recently begun to feel like “his” instead of “theirs”—perhaps an inevitable consequence of time.

Now, irrationally, it didn’t even feel like his anymore either.

Regaining his sense of the present, he noticed a 1939 Chrysler Royal parked in the driveway.

Whose car?

At the front door, he reached into his pocket for his keys. But he’d left them with the parking attendant downtown at some point in the past. So he knelt and reached beside the garden hose for the rock beneath which hid his spare house key. Nothing there. “Shit,” he muttered.

He tried the door.

Fortunately, and unexpectedly, it was unlocked.

When he walked into his house, the first thing he noticed was a tall, white man in slacks, blue dress shirt, and suspenders, lying sprawled face up, snoring, on the sofa, an empty bottle of rye on the floor beside him.

“Hey, what are you doing in my house?” Sumida asked, kicking at the white man sleeping on the sofa.

The big man didn’t budge, but merely snored more loudly.

Sumida turned.

That’s when he noticed that the Diego Rivera print had been replaced on the wall by a quartet of framed, hand-embroidered samplers, all bearing clichéd sayings like, “Home Sweet Home” and “God Bless America.” Who’d moved the picture? Then he noticed something even more disturbing. Where were his wedding photos? And, on the mantelpiece, where were the half-dozen antique Japanese wood and ivory carvings, netsuke, which had been Kyoko’s sole inheritance when her parents were killed in an automobile accident? The furniture and curtains were different too, ugly and obviously chosen without a woman’s eye, without Kyoko’s eye. Propped informally against the radio was a snapshot of an unfamiliar, romantically entwined Asian couple. He picked it up. In ink, the woman had inscribed, “To Jimmy, with much love, Sun.” Who? Cigar butts crowded ash trays. When had Sumida’s home become a bachelor pad? It made no sense.

Sam moved through the house.

To his shock and dismay, he found no sign of his living here—nor of Kyoko. But there was plenty of evidence of some other man. In a framed photograph on the dresser in the master bedroom stood an unfamiliar Asian man dressed in a t-shirt and chino pants in front of this house, Sam’s house, removing a “For Sale” sign with a wide grin on his face and a ’37 Dodge Coupe in the background.

That’s when he heard the toilet flush in the bathroom.

He turned.

The door opened and Tony Fortuna emerged, his face red from drinking.

“Tony!” Sam said, pleased to see his friend’s familiar mug.

Tony narrowed his eyes. “Who are you?”

“It’s me, Sam.”

“Who? I don’t know no Sam.”

Praise

"Woman with a Blue Pencil is a brilliantly structured labyrinth of a novel -- something of an enigma wrapped in a mystery, postmodernist in its experimental bravado and yet satisfyingly well-grounded in the Los Angeles of its World War II era.  Gordon McAlpine has imagined a totally unique work of 'mystery' fiction -- one that Kafka, Borges, and Nabokov, as well as Dashiell Hammett, would have appreciated."  -- Joyce Carol Oates

"McAlpine (Hammett Unwritten as Owen Fitzstephen) once again ventures successfully into metafiction, jumping back and forth between two separate manuscripts while delivering a masterly critique of the mystery novel. Author Takumi Sato must revise the manuscript of his novel about a Japanese-American academic, Sam Sumida...after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. One version of Sato’s novel is a jingoistic tale of American heroism in which all Japanese characters are villains; the other focuses on Sam Sumida, a character who’s no longer allowed to exist, either in the novel or in the United States. Between chapters, readers see the interjections of Maxime Wakefield, Sato’s editor, who urges him to excise any critiques of America, and any mentions of homosexuality and racism, even as Sato himself, as a second-generation Japanese immigrant, is forced to move to an internment camp. McAlpine’s greatest accomplishment is that the book works both as a conventional mystery story and as a deconstruction of the genre’s ideology: whichever strand readers latch on to, the parallel stories pack a brutal punch." -- Publishers Weekly, starred review

“... McAlpine has skillfully melded the mood of rage at Japanese treachery and bits of Hammett-era noir with the sensibilities of metafiction and postmodernism into a truly original crime novel.” -- Booklist