★ ★ ★ ★
First published in 1997, Rhode Island Red is the first in a series about Nanette Hayes, twenty eight year-old woman trying to make ends meet in New York. Open Road Media is re-releasing the book in e-version, and I have to applaud their decision. Of course, I’m a natural sucker for the stories of New York, as well as stories that are underrepresented, so perhaps I’m not the best person to judge.
Nanette graduated from Wellesley with a degree in French and a minor in music, and is now trying to earn enough money for rent. It wasn’t a problem until her boyfriend Walter Michael Moore decided to move out, taking “four fifths of the rent and groceries.” Playing the sax on the street earns some tip money, but also provides a way for her to cope: “Good thing I had on those dark glasses. All those melancholy, lost, private things going through my head. Things I wouldn’t want anybody to read in my eyes.” Another sax player begs her for an opportunity to crash at her place that night and despite her misgivings, she allows him the use of an extra futon. She wakes up shivering with cold only to discover her guest is dead–and when she checks the body, she discovers he was an undercover officer. The discovery sets off an interesting chain of events that leads her to track down Sig’s blind girlfriend, also a busker, while attempting to avoid the violent Detective Leman.
The plot is interesting, if somewhat confusing by the end. Nanette is very much an amateur sleuth and her minor investigative attempts seem littered with assumptions. When the story sidesteps into a romance, I found myself sighing, but remained interested enough for the outcome to keep reading. Still, lessons are learned, which is really what I require if I’m going to follow a character any length of time: “In my dumbass attempts to do right, I’d managed to cut a pretty wide swath through the endless possibilities of wrong.”
Characterization is excellent, and full of the same kind of surprises found in real life. Hayes comes across well, as someone I would have known in the late twenties, post-college and waking up to the gulf between her dreams and reality. She reminisces about her past in a way that is well-integrated with the story but gives a sense of who she is. She’s a confident, kind person who thinks she’s street-wise, an easy character to root for. Side characters are also well done, with vivid little sketches that bring them alive: “The map of the colored man in America was written on his face. Yes, the black past was there, but there was something else… Aha. So that was what I’d glimpsed in his face: he was mean.”
Woven through the mystery is Nanette’s love for jazz and music, from Coltrane to Davis to Monk: “There’s Parker and Rollins and Coltrane… well, the list goes on endlessly. I think it’s a good thing to have an open ended pantheon. When it comes to the piano, though, it’s Monk whom I have accepted as my personal savior.”
All that said, one of the best things about this mystery is the way it weaves Nanette’s life into the story. She touches on her preference for her bald head, interracial relationships, the experience of a black American dealing with the police–and the experience of a black policeman dealing with racism–reactions of people downtown listening to her street music, her upbringing, and struggles with the landlord in an organic, human way that says, “here is my experience.” For white Americans that want to believe that they “don’t see color,” it provides insight into the layers of difference.
I enjoyed it and will certainly check out the next. Although I strongly recommend it with some background jazz and just enough light to read by.