Hard-boiled detective fiction needs more writers like Gordon McAlpine. In his last two novels, the Maltese Falcon-deconstructing Hammett Unwritten and the just-released, parallel-narrative marvel Woman With a Blue Pencil, McAlpine has delivered the goods on multiple levels. In each case, he’s pulled off feats of masterly metafiction while sacrificing little—if any—page-turning punch.
In Hammett Unwritten, McAlpine turned The Maltese Falcon inside out, transporting its characters out of the pages of Dashiell Hammett’s legendary crime novel and into Hammett’s life, hungry for revenge against the beleaguered author himself. In the process, McAlpine constructed an appropriately hard-boiled explanation for the great mystery of Hammett’s career-ending writer’s block, which consumed the last three decades of his life.
Woman With a Blue Pencil starts in a similar place, with Japanese-American academic and aspiring gumshoe Sam Sumida in a Los Angeles cinema on December 6, 1941, watching Humphrey Bogart manhandle Peter Lorre in The Maltese Falcon film. When the projector breaks and the screen goes blank, Sumida’s story—and McAlpine’s novel—veers off into fascinating and unexpected territory.
McAlpine introduces Sumida as a character in the first chapter of a book titled The Revised by Takumi Sato. Sato is a second-generation (Nisei) Japanese-American would-be novelist whose manuscript for a book with a Nisei protagonist (Sumida) has been rejected by a publisher following the attack on Pearl Harbor. The rest of Woman With a Blue Pencil is divided into three parallel narrative components: letters from Sato’s editor at Metropolitan Modern Mysteries (the titular woman with the blue pencil), further excerpts from The Revised and excerpts from The Orchid and the Secret Agent, a Sato-authored “pulp spy thriller” published under the name William Thorne.
Without giving too much away about McAlpine’s fractured, fast-flowing narrative, we learn that Sato, upon the rejection of his novel (due to the impossibility of publishing a novel with a Japanese hero following the attack on Pearl Harbor), quickly rebounded with The Orchid and the Secret Agent, featuring a staunchly patriotic Korean-American hero and unspeakably evil Japanese villains.
While salvaging and reconfiguring some elements of his rejected book in the new one, Sato left some characters, such as Sumida, to wander alone, unrecognized and deprived of their identities in The Revised. In what seems to him to happen mere moments after the projector breaks—but is actually sometime in January 1942—Sumida awakes in an entirely unfamiliar Los Angeles. Suddenly he’s a character without a book and a nameless, despised “Jap” who’s never been born. It’s hard to imagine a more apt metaphor for post-Pearl Harbor California, where virtually all Japanese-Americans (American-born included) awoke to find themselves ostracized and criminalized as presumed traitors to their own country.
The letters from Sato’s editor chronicle both the evolution of The Orchid and the Secret Agent and the author’s own transition to an internment camp. The often-duplicitous ways she “handles” her author take on a fascinating dimension as she encourages and cajoles and coerces him to infuse his new book with enough patriotic fervor and racist condemnation of his own people to make it sell. She’s nothing if not a master of false equivalency:
I understand that for you this project may hold complexities that most authors do not have to face. But I recommend courage! The fact is, there are Japanese spy rings in California, true? … While I do not for a moment believe you harbor Japanese imperialist sympathies, I wonder if your hesitation to use [Korean-American] Jimmy Park as your hero does not represent the very prejudice that you so eloquently derided in your most recent letter to me?
As McAlpine metes out chapters from The Revised and The Orchid and the Secret Agent as well as the editor’s letters in carefully measured and precisely deployed doses, he demonstrates a remarkable facility with the technique E.L. Doctorow once described as Hemingway’s signature storytelling gift: judiciously withholding information from readers and knowing just when to reveal it. Perhaps the neatest trick McAlpine achieves in this book is the sequencing of the excerpts and the letters. That is, you read an excerpt from The Orchid and the Secret Agent that contains a particularly heavy-handed bit of patriotic grandstanding or xenophobic bile, or a dropped-in detail that seems ridiculously out of place, and then you read the missive from the editor that mandated its inclusion.
In that sense, Woman With a Blue Pencil invokes one of the tragic and unforgivable chapters in American history—the vilification and internment of U.S. citizens of Japanese descent during World War II—with a subtly rendered, mostly implied tertiary narrative of manipulation, acceptance, compromise and self-betrayal. But in keeping the Nisei hero Sumida alive, The Revised also presents a balancing sliver of resistance, as well as a cheeky and subversive twist on the relationships of writers and editors.
Of course, there’s one bit of editor-to-author disingenuousness that absolutely wouldn’t work in this context: if the book she’s encouraging him to write, as demonstrated by the excerpts we’re invited to read, didn’t stack up as a lively and compelling slice of spy-thriller pulp. Both The Orchid and the Secret Agent and The Revised qualify as fast-paced, rip-roaring reads, making Woman With a Blue Pencil’s myriad delights much more than conceptual. Hard-boiled fiction fans could use more books like Hammett Unwritten and Woman With a Blue Pencil: novels that work on multiple levels, and take the genre to such strange and fascinating places.
— Steve Nathans-Kelly