Styx & Stone by James W Ziskin
On good days, I suppose we all like to see the world as a safe and caring place in which we can go about our business with minimal fear of violent retaliation for perceived offences. As I write this today, I see Julie Bindel has cancelled an appearance at the University of Manchester. She’s been the subject of death threats for being brave enough to voice opinions unpopular with the misogynists. The latest winner of Miss America has been the victim of racist abuse on the social media. The notion of gender equality remains contentious. So how should we react when authors write first-person lead characters in the “wrong” gender? Is it appropriate for a woman to “pretend” to be a man for protagonist purposes, and vice versa? Perhaps more importantly, do the results of this gender impersonation read credibly and, if not, does this lack of credibility matter?
I’m prompted into this rumination by Styx & Stone by James W Ziskin (Seventh Street Books, 2013) which is, as you may infer, a man writing a first-person narrative as Ellie Stone, a youngish woman. Perhaps this author is unlucky because I’ve recently read two novels by women explicitly written for women. This has reminded me of the difference between the sensibilities that inform the genders. It’s too easy for one gender to sit comfortably in his or her ghetto and choose not to consider what interests the other when it comes to fiction. This book comes over as a man writing in what he hopes is a gender-neutral style but, to my mind, it ends up being essentially an outsider’s view of what it means to be a woman. This is not necessarily a defect. Indeed, the text is illuminating as a man’s view of how a woman reacts to physical attraction, lustful coupling, and being double-timed. The context for this somewhat unromantic view of relationships is the daughter of a stern academic who has, for reasons which are explained as we read, been estranged from her father. When he’s attacked in his apartment and left in a coma, hooked up to life-saving machines in the hospital, she finds herself sucked into an investigation to determine who could have been responsible. When another member of the same university department is found dead in his bath, our hero is convinced this is not a coincidence. Now all she has to do is convince the police they have an attempted murder instead of a burglary gone wrong, and a murder instead of an accidental death.
Fortunately, even though this is set in 1960 when men were in charge and women were largely decorative, she has the “chops” to face down the detective and prod him into an increasingly active investigation. Between them they gather information which she interprets and then poses more questions. In the end, she arrives at a solution. So how well does the plot stand up? This is one of these rather pleasing puzzles where the identity of the killer(s) is/are fairly obvious from the outset, but there’s significant misdirection because of the problem of motive. Even when the relevance of the title is revealed about two-thirds of the way through, it’s still not at all clear how it all ties together. The final set of explanations is intellectually satisfying. It’s not at all what I had expected and the significance of the names is a delight. All of which brings me back to the original question.
Because we’re dealing with historical fiction, it’s easy to lose sight of the credibility problem. I’m one of the dying breed that lived through this time (albeit in a different country) so I come with my antennae twitching to see whether the author has captured the essence of the culture. There are clearly some good observations on the racism that defined the 1950s and, insofar as it’s relevant, this is a society still carrying some baggage from World War II. But I’m less than convinced that the sexual politics has been captured accurately. This strikes me as a man sugar-coating the history of gender inequality for modern consumption. We need to be very clear about the extent of the discrimination faced by women in this pre-feminism period. It affected every aspect of their roles in society and the way this woman makes her way through life doesn’t quite ring true. Even the skirt on the jacket artwork is too short for the days before tights were released on to the mass market. This leads me to what’s hopefully a fair conclusion. So long as you don’t care about historical accuracy as applied to culture, this is an excellent puzzle to solve very much located in the 1950s and 60s. This particular situation would not arise in this form in modern times. Styx & Stone has to be set sixty years ago for the plot to work. Everything else is window-dressing approximating the culture and giving enough for modern readers to get a flavour of what it was like. On that basis, this is a great challenge to the armchair detectives among you. Better still, it plays fair giving you a very transparent view into the thinking processes involved. I was impressed. There’s to be another in 2014. It’s to be titled No Stone Unturned.
For a review of the sequel, see No Stone Unturned.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.