by Robert Eversz
Published by Simon & Schuster
271 pages, 2003
Have Nose Stud, Will Travel
Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith
"Men. Can't live with 'em. Can't shoot 'em."
Unless, of course, you're Nina Zero, the ex-con heroine of Burning Garbo, Robert Eversz's latest blast of, uh, alternative crime fiction.
Of course, if you shoot 'em, you also have to pay the price, and Nina certainly knows the name of that tune. When we first meet her here, she's just six months out of the California Institute for Women after serving a four-year stint for manslaughter, on parole but unrepentant, working as a paparazza for Scandal Times, a Los Angeles tabloid. It's her 30th birthday, but Nina's idea of celebrating is to perch atop a rock on a Malibu hillside, overlooking the estate of Angela Doubleday, a reclusive and allegedly "miserable" movie star, armed only with a Nikon camera equipped with the longest lens she owns, a "five-hundred-millimeter beast the size of a rhinoceros horn."
Yeah, she actually says stuff like that -- "the size of a rhinoceros horn." That's the thing with Nina: the girl has a mouth on her that just won't quit. Smart-ass bon mots and skewering observations seem to spew out of her endlessly, her anger the fuel she runs on.
At times, she comes across as the pissed-off, trouble-prone bastard love child of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe and Joan Jett. Or is it Chrissie Hynde? Or, maybe, Courtney Love? Well, whoever her mother is, Nina can probably kick your ass. At least, verbally.
And the world she lives in is as mix-and-match as her ancestry -- the plot of Burning Garbo is like a shotgun wedding between Lassie Come Home and Marathon Man, with a dash of The Long Goodbye tossed in.
Why is she so ticked off? Let's just say that Ms. Zero has had a rather eventful past, as laid out in her two previous outings, Shooting Elvis (1996) and Killing Paparazzi (2002). Originally a plain-Jane blonde named Mary Alice Baker, who worked as a kiddie photographer and was trying to outgrow a dysfunctional childhood and an abusive father, she has since reinvented herself as Nina Zero, a "raven-haired and pierced virago" with a nose stud, a chip on her shoulder and more attitude than a punk band on tour as an opening act. In her short life, Nina has been married, widowed, used, abused, beat up, tossed out, picked up and been a guest of the state -- not just on the recent manslaughter charge, but previously as well, for blowing up Los Angeles International Airport. Oops ...
Not that Nina dwells on her past -- it's actually only briefly alluded to in Burning Garbo -- but it has definitely shaped her. She's one woman you don't want to mess around with, and she does not let things go quietly. For some reason, these characteristics don't exactly endear this "lippy, pushy broad" to large chunks of the population; but this reader, at least, thinks he may be developing a small crush on the mouthy wench with the bad luck.
And it does seem, sometimes, that Nina was born under a bad sign. After all, there she is, just doing her job, trying to sneak a shot of this would-be Garbo, when suddenly the surrounding hills come alive with the sound of a raging brushfire that takes out not just Doubleday's home, but the actress, as well. Then, before you can catch your breath, Nina's in trouble again, suspected of both arson and murder by Ted Claymore, an overzealous detective with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, who seems more fond of the bottle and his own prejudices than he is intent on finding suspects better than Ms. Zero. Of course, Nina's mouth doesn't help her defense ...
So, once more, Nina must make like a detective to find the real villain and clear her name. OK, this is not the world's most original scenario, and a character as vivid as Nina probably deserves a stronger plot, one that matches the satisfying punch and crunch of Nina herself. Nonetheless, this is pretty good stuff. There are some neat twists in Burning Garbo (including a red herring that sucker-punched me and had me frantically flipping pages back and forth), and the story itself is full of obsessions, hidden truths, shady secrets and even a great scene of attempted murder by bulldozer. But the real charm of the novel is that Eversz has fleshed out what could have been a mere cartoon character in such a way that a return visit is not just likely, but eagerly anticipated.
"One of the things I'm trying to do with these books," the author has said, "is to use the crime fiction form to write the fictional autobiography of a young woman searching for her self-identity."
Although part of that self-identity seems to be a perennial prickliness and hard-ass bluster, there's also a surprising amount of heart in Nina Zero, and that just gets under my skin. I sure wouldn't want her to live in my apartment building (especially given how she treats a fellow tenant in one memorable scene), but I'd definitely like to think she is out there somewhere. Under her abrasive surface, Nina is endearingly human, down to the nails she's bitten to their quicks. And although she proudly boasts that she hasn't cried in sorrow for years, she's got a soft spot in her heart just a little bigger than a beer truck for the mangy, toothless, overgrown Rottweiler she picks up along the way.
There are a few surprisingly touching moments in Burning Garbo, too, particularly the grudging mutual respect and even fondness that develops between Nina and Ben Turner, a cranky, retired cop who was Doubleday's estranged godfather. The growing, evolving relationship between Nina and Arlanda Cortes, the actress' niece and principal heir, is also deftly handled. And to tell the truth, it's good to see Nina actually developing some friendships, because at first glance, this is definitely someone who has "does not play well with others" stamped all over her. The closest thing Nina has to a genuine friend coming into this story is Frank Adams, a shabby, overweight slob and the Scandal Times' lead investigative reporter, who turns out to harbor hidden depths of resourcefulness.
Other characters make sometimes all-too-brief drive-bys. Among them are Picket, a "broken-down gym rat with a bum knee and connections to every housebreaker and sneak thief west of the San Diego Freeway," who acts as Nina's personal source for stolen cameras; Charles H. Belinsky, our heroine's loud-mouthed and much-married cowboy lawyer, almost as full of bluster as Nina herself; and Terry Graves, Zero's long-suffering, no-nonsense parole officer.
Perhaps best of all, though, is Troy Davies, the brown-nosing, too-handsome-by-half aspiring actor and murder suspect (and Angela Doubleday's former boy-toy), who eagerly answers all of Nina and Ben's questions, and then presents each of them with an 8-by-10 glossy of himself, plus a boxed tube of foot cream -- souvenirs from his last TV commercial.
Ah, California ...
Still, it's Nina's spot-on take on modern life, Southern California style, that ties everything together in Burning Garbo. Her twisted but unflinching observations, as well as her quips about everything from the nuts-and-bolts of the dehumanizing L.A. jail system to the chimera of fame and ego in Hollywood, echo long after you've put this book down. They also raise Nina Zero above the countless dime-a-dozen dicks who march up and down Chandler's hallowed mean streets talking loudly but saying nothin'.
Nina often talks loudly, too, but how can you not love a gal who responds to an overgrown bully's drunken threat to take her camera away by getting right into the lout's face and calling his bluff? "You're welcome to try ...," she snarls, "then my publication can sue you, your boss, your boss's boss, and run so many lawyers down your throat you'll be gagging on court dates for the rest of your life." The poor bastard doesn't know what hit him.
Or consider this droll remark about the difference between tombstones in a cemetery: "Along the [Mexican border], to be a dead Catholic was a more festive affair than to be a dead Protestant."
Or her take on shopping in Beverly Hills: "One of the ironies ... is that ninety-nine percent of the sales staff have better taste and manners than their customers."
Nina gets philosophical, at times ("Sleep is the one escape the authorities can't prevent ... In sleep, the inmate is just as free as anyone else"), and she even tries her hand at existentialism, as when she explains the facts of life to the Rott, to whom she has given the incongruous name "Baby": "Yes, I know what happens to dogs at the dog pound and I'm sorry that you run the risk of getting gassed a month down the line, but you're not my dog and the world is a cruel place."
So OK, she doesn't cry, and she's not exactly a poster child for Up With People, but underneath the hard-boiled shell Nina has compassion and empathy in spades. "His voice tore like old cloth and he wept, trying to hide his face from me" -- that's simply one of the saddest sentences I've ever read.
Let's not forget this is a crime novel, though, and all the gaudy patter isn't going to be enough when the hammer comes down. Fortunately, Nina's one tough cookie who knows the game is rigged, but she rolls the dice anyway. "I have some experience in breaking the law ...," she explains. "[T]his is the way we'll play it."
Yep, this is a woman who keeps her eyes and her mouth wide open; who, despite the odds, believes that sometimes a gal's just gotta do what a gal's gotta do. Or as she puts it, "It sucks, but it's the right thing to do."
If Marlowe really was her dad, he'd be proud as hell. | October 2003
Kevin Burton Smith is a January Magazine contributor, a Mystery Scene columnist and the editor/creator of The Thrilling Detective Web Site. A Montrealer by birth, he now lives in the Los Angeles area, an imaginary city in California, where he keeps hoping to spot Marlowe's ghost. But he'll settle for an honest glass of beer in a cocktail lounge.