Walla Walla Suite (A Room With No View)
by Anne Argula
Published by Ballantine Books
272 pages, 2007
Peeling the Onion
Reviewed by Linda L. Richards
The first three paragraphs of Anne Argula's Walla Walla Suite (A Room With No View) are like some rhythmic post-modern poem. Raw. Elegant. Entrancing. I defy anyone with affection for the classic detective form to read them and not be compelled to forge ahead:
Picture this. Instead of sprinkling sand in your eyes the Sandman gives you a shot of liquid fire in the ass. Da frick.
Lying there in the raw, middle of the night, sticking to the sheets, my body was self-basting, my skin tingling like a Christmas goose. Not enough? My head was on a countdown to blow up because some Indians on the street below were beating tribal drums and one of them was torturing a tribal chant. Woi Yesus.
I can't sleep all that well these days, not since losing the company of someone else in the house, that someone else having been my husband, Connors, who finally did what I long expected him to do: leave me for Esther, his pharmacist's assistant. I should care.
And, see, you leave these three spare paragraphs without knowing a whole lot more than when you started, yet somehow knowing everything you need in order to go on.
Our heroine is earthy. She has been cut loose by a longtime mate. She is an ex-cop from Spokane, Washington, who has recently become a P.I. And she is suffering though a menopause of otherworldly proportions: her hot flashes get to be like the atmospheric weather descriptions in other books. Actually, since Walla Walla Suite is set in Seattle, we of course get some conventional weather reports, as well. But this writer's prose is so lean and muscular, you never get tired of either kind. Quite the opposite, in fact. Argula has the gift, that classic noir gift, of describing things amply in just a few words. Argula evokes more with a shrug of the shoulders and a flick of the wrist than other writers call forth in whole chapters.
The title of this new paperback-only refers to the maximum-security prison at Walla Walla, Washington, where, at one point in the book, detective protagonist Quinn (Her first name or her last? She never tells.) attends an execution she's been hired to report on. Argula handles this sequence with enormous skill. The author brings no judgment to what's going on. Is Quinn for or against the death penalty? Other writers might be tempted to beat us over the head with their views, but -- mercifully -- Argula doesn't go there, instead showing us what Quinn sees and a bit of what she feels. It's enough.
I didn't know quite what I was going to tell Vincent and Wendy. If the state was determined to do it, then this was as good as anything. It was better than bad liver death, for instance. Better than tying them in a burlap sack and chucking them in the lake. ...
Me, I could still hear the slow heavy footfalls of the Fat Man ascending the scaffold, the fans in the heater vents, the heavy breathing of the witnesses, the warden asking for last words, the rustle of the hood being slipped over, the drop of the door, the snap of the rope. I could hear all that, and the moments of utter silence that followed.
The execution is secondary -- tertiary, even -- to this story. Eileen Jones, an attractive 18-year-old who happens to work in the same downtown Seattle building where Quinn has her office, has suddenly disappeared. Quinn looks in on the girl's stricken boss, and when he discovers that his visitor is a private detective, he hires her to find his popular but missing employee.
At first it looks as though Eileen might have slipped away for an unexpected holiday, though all who know her feel this would be uncharacteristic. Still, everyone loves Eileen and so hopes for the best. When the girl's body is discovered it's clear she was murdered, and Eileen's boss instructs Quinn to keep looking: only the search has now been modified. Quinn no longer has to find Eileen; she has to find out who killed her.
Through her investigation, Quinn finds time to spend with Vincent Ainge, one of the few friends she's made since her divorce. A mitigation investigator, Vincent has an office in Quinn's building and he's one of her few clients. Vincent hires Quinn to interview people whose lives have touched those of condemned murderers. He doesn't try to prove that guilty men are innocent. Rather, Vincent looks for the mitigating circumstances that will help juries choose to keep murderers alive and behind bars, rather than executing them. As Walla Walla Suite progresses, Vincent dreads the possibility that he will be called upon to mitigate for the man who has confessed to killing Eileen. This moral dilemma and its resolution, more than Quinn's investigation, provide the meat in Walla Walla Suite.
It's ambitious, the layers within layers this plot demands. And it doesn't work in every aspect. At times the story seems to sag under its own weight. At others it feels as though so much is required to happen, elements that could be sharp are necessarily dulled. For instance, the character of Randy Merck, the former abused child who confesses to killing Eileen and who hints at having murdered other women as well, could have been drawn with a sharper line. And though Walla Walla Suite's conclusion is both unexpected and satisfactory, I would like to have seen a slightly stronger hint of what was to come earlier in the text. That is, I would have preferred that there be information laying around that I read, but perhaps didn't see.
These are quibbles, however. Judgment calls. Overall, Walla Walla Suite is a fantastic book, compellingly rendered, beautifully told. I was disappointed, however, to discover that author Anne Argula isn't a she at all, but rather a fairly well-known he. The merest modicum of research turned up Argula's alter ego: Darryl Ponicsan. And Wikipedia tells us that Ponicsan "is a writer, best known as the author of the 1971 novel The Last Detail, which was adapted into a 1973 movie starring Jack Nicholson; and for the 1973 novel and screenplay Cinderella Liberty, starring James Caan." Plus, a lot more.
The detective Quinn series began with the Edgar Award-nominated novel Homicide My Own (2005). A third installment, Krapp's Last Cassette, is scheduled for publication in September 2008. I'll be standing in line for a copy. | October 2007
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine the author of several books.