In my ‘leeservaringen’ (reading experiences) I often state that a writer should be on the move. Meaning, he/she should not be writing the same novel over and over again, only changing the words.
I believe a writer ought to reinvent him/herself so every now and then. I now realize that I must be careful with what I wish for.
For me Ki Longfellow is and will be the writer of The Secret Magdalene and Flow Down Like Silver. (I haven’t given up hope that the third instalment in this amazing series on Gnosis, The Woman Who Knew the All, or whatever the title may become, will once see the light of day.) With Houdini Heart she caught me completely off guard. Even though I willed myself to like it – in which I succeeded – and to understand it – in which I miserably failed – it never grew on me like the Gnosis-novels. But boy, did she reinvent herself as a writer. From the highly philosophical and deeply spiritual stories about historical women like Mary Magdalene and Hypatia of Alexandria, she sidestepped to horror. And now Longfellow once again has made a big move: she jumped to murder mysteries, detectives. She raises the reinventing of herself as a writer to a form of Art.
In one go she published three murder mysteries in a row, featuring Staten Island Private Eye, Sam Russo. The first story takes place in 1948 in the atmosphere of the detective film-noire from that era, with actors like Humphrey Bogart and Jim Cagney. Russo constantly compares himself with ‘Bogie’ and talks in the same kind of fast wise-crack way. Shadow Roll is Russo’s actual first case as a PI. Up till then he functioned as the brains and sidekick of Lino Morelli, a guy he grew up with in an orphanage who works as a detective with the Staten Island Police. Going along in the Sam Russo books the reader picks up more and more about the hero’s background.
With these murder mysteries Ki Longfellow once again proves that she excels in any genre she pleases. She writes convincingly as if she is Sam Russo back in 1948. In this first case, Sam is ordered to investigate the death of three horse jockeys in Saratoga Springs. It is clear that everyone wants him to report all three instances as an accident. Murder around a popular racetrack, where big money is involved, can only do harm for business.
As the story unfolds, it looks almost as if the murder cases – which they of course turn out to be – are merely an excuse for Longfellow to portray Russo and his surroundings. She displays quite an extensive knowledge of horse racing history as well as the history of the movies for that matter. As for the solving of the mystery, we see some characters passing by, who might be involved in these homicides. But none of them actually fit the boot. Russo nowhere in the book seems to really know where he’s going with his investigation, nor what he is doing. He just goes along with whatever is thrown at him, and in the end he still miraculously solves the mystery. Although not entirely in the way your average mystery is solved, where the bad guys are exposed and escorted to jail. But I’ll leave that to the reader.
I thoroughly enjoyed Shadow Roll, mainly because of the obvious craftsmanship with how it is written. It is packed with hilarious language and wise cracks. The way Russo introduces himself already says it all: “Sam Russo, born anytime, raised anywhere, pain in the ass.”
The lady of the orphanage in which he grew up, Florence Zawadzki (Flo) is described as: “Old Flo knew as much about mothering as a cow knew about driving a cab.”
Or someone with bad eyesight is put down as: “Hank couldn’t see the Titanic without his glasses (…)”
The beautiful and very rich Mrs. Willingford (what’s in a name?) tries to seduce Sam. Sitting opposite her, trying to do the sensible thing, he realises “my brains were still down around my groin somewhere. (…) Did I think Mrs. Willingford was a killer? Certainly. But not the kind that left dead bodies – just dead hearts.”
I laughed a lot reading Shadow Roll. Like with the introduction of Jane, the dog of Babe Duffy, one of the victims: “Jane was some sort of hunting dog from Africa. I figured Babe
named her Jane because it was the only African word he knew: as in ‘Me Tarzan, you Jane.’” This relation between dog and PI becomes one of the most beautiful storylines in these three
Next to being very funny Longfellow sharpens her pen most when she lets Russo wander off in thought to his war experiences, where he was in the cavalry in the Philippines, fighting guns and canons with horses. This he describes somewhere as: “a crash course in scraping the bottom of human nature.” And occasionally I thought I recognized the Ki Longfellow of the Gnosis-wisdom shimmering through her diamond-in-the-rough-character Sam Russo. As a kid he dreamed of being a jockey, but his heavy build made that impossible. “I would of loved that, being a jockey. But life doesn’t work that way – getting what you love. Seemed to me life gives you what you need.”
Yes, miss Longfellow not only managed to surprise me again, but she made me a happy reader in doing so. I’ll make sure to follow Sam Russo where ever her pen may take him. But it might just as well be that these three mysteries will be the end of it. I mean, no doubt this writer will again have reinvented herself, as we speak.