Favorite Crime Fiction of 2015

Woman with a Blue Pencil, by Gordon McAlpine (Seventh Street):
Don’t let all the highbrow praise for this metafictional head-spinner scare you away–McAlpine’s ambitions may be more high-falutin’ than those of the next ink-stained jasper, but he knows how to tell a kick-ass story. Even when it’s presented in bits and pieces. The snippets from a couple of different novels, interspersed by selected correspondence from the editor (the “woman with the blue pencil” of the title), are dealt out here like clues that the reader must assemble on his or her own. You’ll soon be caught up, though, as I was, by the author’s ambitions and audacity, as well as his capacity to nail the tone and reach of 1940s pulp fiction, and the tango writers and editors have been seemingly dancing forever. This slim volume should be a heaving mass of look-at-me-now literary pretension, but McAlpine keeps it moving, flitting from one novel’s story of a bookish Japanese-American UCLA professor, Sam Sumida, who’s still grieving over his murdered wife, seeking solace in watching a detective film on the night of June 6, 1941 … to the eye-rolling adventures of pulp hero Jimmy Park, a preposterously over-boiled L.A. gumshoe of Korean descent turned super spy, who’s out to nail those “dirty Japs” for Uncle Sam. And then there are the letters from Maxine Wakefield, an editor at Metropolitan Modern Mysteries Inc., who offers guidance to Tukumi Sato, the creator of both Sam and Jimmy. Tukumi just wants to be a writer, but the poor sap’s ambitions are being thwarted at every turn not just by commercial necessity (always a bitch), but also by the cold, bitter realities of a scared, paranoid post-Pearl Harbor America. And that, beyond the post-modern whiz-bang and the gleeful potshots at the publishing biz, is where the true heart of this book beats. McAlpine may be a master of hint and nuance, but when the walls break down between fiction and reality, and the real story emerges, it’s a punch to the gut: the sad tale of Tukumi Sato, an American writer caught up in history.