Chipped Pearls:
Elvira Slate Investigations Book Two 

By Helen Jacey
Shedunnit Productions (December 2019), £12.99

Review by Susan De Muth

I took Helen Jacey’s latest murder mystery starring Elvira Slate (the world’s first 1940s feminist sleuth) on holiday and couldn’t put it down.

The story is a gripper to start with: a jazz songstress has been framed for murder and Elvira, convinced of her innocence, is determined to save her from the death penalty. 

Equally absorbing is the vintage world that Jacey so vividly paints as Elvira races against time, potentially detrimental revelations by past enemies and her own psychological demons.

…MALE GAZE STEREOTYPES. I DECIDED TO CHANGE ALL THAT

We meet an all-female jazz band whose regular gig is a Hollywood lesbian club. There are female mobsters who pack guns… and use them. Elvira’s mentor is a seasoned female Private Investigator and her employer on the case is a glamorous, successful, female defence attorney.

“As a fan of 1940s crime noir, I was sick of turning a blind eye to the sexism and racism that permeates the genre,” says Hastings-based Jacey, an internationally renowned gender and screenwriting expert. “The private dicks are always tough guys – usually white – and any female characters involved are male gaze stereotypes. I decided to change all that.”

In fact, it is a perfectly logical premise that women would have stepped into roles vacated by men away fighting in the Second World War and nothing in the broad, female-populated canvas Jacey paints seems implausible. There are some men here too: Lauder, a cheating, corrupt police officer; Barney, Elvira’s (probably gay) secretary… 

Jacey’s background in screenwriting clearly informs her writing style, creating an immersive, cinematic experience through the use of snapshot scene setting, short sentences and lashings of commendably realistic dialogue that drives the narrative.

There is a close attention to physical detail that also draws the reader in to Elvira’s world. Jacey describes costume minutiae – stitching, buttons, trimmings – as well as vintage cars, interiors, shop signs and so on. One is struck by the level of preliminary research she must have undertaken.

MOVE OVER, MARLOWE!

All the main characters are deftly drawn, but Elvira is the star and we are given a great deal of extra insight into her character. Not only does she narrate the story in the first person, but Jacey also has her tell us what she is thinking – an intriguing device, especially when that thought is at odds with what Elvira is doing or the words coming out of her mouth:

‘Okay, I’ll go see her.’ I heard myself saying What are you doing?

Meanwhile, Elvira’s unfortunate back-story creates tensions and dilemmas throughout the narrative… and a highly idiosyncratic moral compass.

In Elvira Slate, Jacey has created an intriguing, glamorously turned-out, paradox. Here are toughness and courage, self-doubt and anxiety; a driving ambition at odds with an ongoing struggle against defeatism. Many a reader could empathise with such conflicts, I imagine, and hence we become involved in her struggles and celebrate her successes. 

Elvira Slate could deservedly take her place in the (mostly male) literary pantheon of flawed, amoral, eccentric Private Investigators. Move over, Marlowe!

ASSOCIATED EVENTS

Following the 4th December London launch of Chipped Pearls at the Cinema Museum, there will be a special Hastings/St Leonards event on Wednesday 18th December, 6.30 – 8.30pm, at A Wave of Dreams Arts Lab, 48 Kings Rd, St Leonards. Helen Jacey will talk about, and read from, the book and there will be an exhibition of selected artwork by Grande Dame. Copies of the book will be available for sale, signed by the author. This is a free event and all are welcome.


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