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A Dangerous Road by Kris Nelscott

The theme of today’s review is authenticity. Many authors write what they know. This is their comfort zone and it enables them to include levels of insight normally impossible to an outsider. Others are more daring and adopt a point of view as an outsider. In the first, you get an essential truthfulness about the mise-en-scène and credibility in the belief systems driving the choices characters make on what to do or not to do. In the latter, you see the scenes and the characters’ motivations through a more objective eye. In some cases, this may offer a form of commentary on the culture being described. The leaves the question whether authenticity matters.

On some things, I am a genuine expert. So, being born a Geordie, I am able to comment with authority on the portrayal of my homeland in films like Get Carter and, more recently, The One and Only. We shall pass rapidly over the general failure of filmmakers to reproduce the accent. Their standard justification is that meaning would be denied to even to English, let alone foreign, audiences without the use of subtitles. In reality, the problem is that the “stars” imported to sell the films are incapable of adopting a credible accent and their efforts would probably add an unintended comic element to the whole — something not necessarily desirable in Get Carter, Purely Belter, et al. Does it matter that films do not accurately portray local accents or, indeed, the real local culture? In some senses, the answer is always “no”.

Art always strives to achieve some level of universality and, if you root your work too strongly in one culture, it may deny others the chance to empathise. Thus, when you go to see Shakespeare, you do not hear the Elizabethan English of his time, but modern accents and, often, find the action in contemporary settings. Indeed, where would we be with Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and the many other film and stage versions of Shakespeare that have transplanted the spirit of his work into forms more immediately accessible to modern audiences.

All of which brings me to A Dangerous Road by Kris Nelscott. This is a not-quite private-eye story in the tradition of Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins novels. That means an African-American hero with a military background who makes his living by doing odd jobs, usually investigation based. Unlike Easy, Smokey Dalton is well-educated, but they both have a knack for solving mysteries. Unlike Easy, Smokey Dalton is demotivated and alienated but, as the pressure mounts, they both get things done. When it comes to the politics of race, Mosley captures the social anger of the times and the self-control necessary to survive the inevitable interaction with local law-enforcement officers in particular and white folk in general. I take his voice to be authentic. Nelscott is a pseudonym (as most people interested in mystery novels will know). I read this book because I had enjoyed her science fiction and was interested to explore her other writing. Kristine Kathryn Rusch has no direct experience as a man of colour living through times of racial tension in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet this is the substance of the first of what has proved a successful series of Smokey Dalton novels.

Let us start with the quality of the mystery to be solved. The core of the problem is obvious from the initial pages, but the detail of the resolution only becomes possible towards the end of the book when Smokey makes a road trip. I confess I did not predict the correct solution. I was in the mood to read it through to the end in one sitting and did not stop to give it thought. As a “twist”, it fits into the context, but it’s a bit “ordinary” when measured against comparable novels. The intended focus of interest lies in the novelisation of the final days leading up to the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. Since we all know he was assassinated, the only tension in this narrative lies in mapping out the territory often occupied by conspiracy theorists intent upon involving the FBI and the local police in the shooting. Sadly, I was mildly underwhelmed by this. There is also a subplot involving an interracial relationship between Smokey and his client, Laura Hathaway. In the heat of the moment and given all Smokey’s emotional baggage, I found this element to be the most credible. It’s an emotional tragedy for both characters, but probably what would have happened. I take this element to be authentic.

Put all this together and you have quite an interesting read. It has Rusch’s trademark prose — refreshingly simple and involving. If it had been put in support of a narrative more intrinsically exciting to a Geordie, I would have been really impressed. Perhaps, to Americans interested in their own history, such novels are inherently exciting. I am therefore uncertain whether to continue acquiring and reading the other Smokey Dalton novels. In contrast, I am a Walter Mosley completist, having read all his novels including the science fiction (one of which is dire). His voice does speak to me as a Geordie who lived through the immediate post-war period in a Northern, bomb-devastated British city.

For my other reviews of books by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, see:
Boneyards
City of Ruins
A Dangerous Road (writing as Kris Nelscott)
Diving into the Wreck
Duplicate Effort
Recovering Apollo 8

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