Book Review : Anthony Neil Smith - Castle Danger: The Mental States (2017)
Anthony Neil Smith is a familiar name to long-time readers of this site. The author of Choke on Your Lies, The Drummer and the rip-roaring Billy Lafitte novels earned my respect, recognition and whatever awards I had to give between 2010 and 2014. He's been battling health issues over the last couple years, which resulted in a dramatic slowdown in output, but the artist formerly known as Doc Noir on Twitter is back and he brought a new trans detective character to life like a keyboard-wielding Dr. Frankenstein. Believe it or not, the second volume of the Duluth Files novels The Mental States is already out and it is...it is...kind of fucked up. Now, I like fucked up but you need a stomach for novels like these.
Manny Jahnke (or should I say Hannah) is not a cop anymore. (S)he's working for senator-to-be Andrew Marquette, like his ill-fated namesake before him. Marquette's transitioning sister inspired Manny to confront his demons and transition himself in Woman on Ice, so (s)he's decided to pursue the original Hannah's life's work. Politics is nasty environment to undergo such a dramatic life change in, though and the Marquette family have a handful of nasty secrets of their own. When one of Andrew's advisors disappear and resurfaces on a terrifying internet website, Manny's transition becomes the least of his problems.
The overarching theme in The Mental States is perversion. This novel is filled with duplicitous suit-wearing perverts and terrified, broken down leather-clad gimps. It sounds weird like that, but it's by design. In the first novel, Manny Jahnke started transitioning into a woman in a frozen, conservative Minnesota in Woman On Ice and was immediately shunned and declared a weirdo pervert by his peers, but he's confronted to true perversion in The Mental States. An overpowering sexuality which enforces violence, humiliation and control. So, Manny is confronted to how own normalcy despite the transitioning process, which make him(her) even more confused. I know, that's a spitball of an idea, but I was expecting no less from the Gaylord Perry of mystery writers.
I've enjoyed The Mental States mostly because I'm an Anthony Neil Smith fan and that I'm used to his breakneck, oddball storylines, but it has two problems that Woman on Ice didn't have. First, you need to have read the first one to make sense of Manny's transition. There really aren't any new heartbreaking, confrontational moments in The Mental States and Manny actually backs down from decisions he's taken in Woman on Ice, so that's confusing. And the storyline, while proving a point about Manny not being necessarily abnormal, could've been lived by completely different characters, really. It's too busy to make its point clearly and doesn't offer the gut-wrenching character exposition Woman on Ice did.
So, there you have it. Castle Danger: The Mental States is a fun, fast paced and ongoing labyrinthian weirdness. It will please Anthony Neil Smith's fans for sure, but it requires a reading of Woman on Ice to fully make sense of. There's a lot of details that will go unnoticed to readers if they don't have a prior knowledge and appreciation of Manny Jahnke. But Manny is a character worth investing time and effort into because (s)he's a great conventional detective and lifting the veil on a problem that I don't believe was ever explored in genre fiction protagonists before. The Mental States is a little bit of a bumpy ride, but there's a lot more to be explored through Manny Jahnke. Give her a chance!