Book Review : Dana King - Bad Samaritan (2018)
Earlier this week, I invited author Dana King to write about the portrayal of women in detective fiction. I thought it would ignite passions and spark debate, but his opinions were well received and the essay didn't so much except generate a shitload of clicks. Ideal scenario, really. The cause of women in general is important for King. Important enough to write a novel where violence against women is an central theme. Whenever a male writer addresses issues women face in fiction, it's never a smooth ride. How does Bad Samaritan fare against this troublesome legacy?
Not bad. File this one as "interestingly flawed", but it could've definitely been a lot worse.
Bad Samaritan is the fifth novel in the Nick Forte series. He's a fearless and rugged private investigator in the classic mold of Mike Hammer. He's contacted by a woman named Becky Tuttle, a steamy romance novel author writing under a pseudonym, who's getting fan mail from a creep. The police can't do anything because there is not direct threat, but she wants it to stop. It's not the only weird correspondence Forte is working on. A former prostitute named Lily O'Donoghue is getting blackmail from someone who knows what she used to do for a living and she uses a favor with Ol' Nick to get out of this one.
There are plenty of depiction of systemic violence against women in Bad Samaritan, which is great. The situations Nick Forte is brought to investigate on feel realistic, because they involve cowardly men hiding behind anonymity to exert power over women. Although the men's rights activists depicted in the novel are appropriately goofy, these feel oddly realistic in 2018. The antagonists in Bad Samaritan are weak and spineless men who feel threatened by a world that is changing and there is a shitload of men like that yapping away like chihuahuas and yearing for the 1950s on social media today.
But, the structural problem with Bad Samaritan is that it's primarily a confrontation between Nick Forte and these spineless men. Women are primarily victims here, no matter how smart and cool-headed they are, and Forte handles their business for them *. It's problematic, but interesting. It would've been really hard for Dana King to write anything else because Nick Forte is a male private investigator, but there's something "Father Knows Best"-ish about having Forte being the problem solver here. If men solve women's issues for them, we're still marginalizing them. Part of being an ally is learning to get the fuck out of the way and it's not really reflected in Bad Samaritan.
Overall, I've enjoyed Bad Samaritan for being structurally sound and confronting me to representation issues in a way it didn't expect to. The novel incidentally makes a good point about the portrayal of women in detective fiction: women need to take control over the narrative. I don't know it'll ever be achievable through a male voice, but if men want to write about women, we really need to make it about women and not about men handling women's business for them. And that is a big step for us to take. A novel like Bad Samaritan doesn't take this step, but it made me aware of the inherent challenges of taking it.
* I'm simplifying here, but if you read the novel in its entirety, I'd be glad to debate its representation of women via email.