Maggie of My Heart (Murder! Mystery! Mayhem! Book 2)
As part of #DemainDecember on this blog, I’m reviewing as many titles from Horror publisher Demain Publishing as I can in the first week of December. Because, quite frankly, nothing typifies the spirit of Christmas more to me than seven days (at least!) of high-quality short-form Horror fiction encompassing a number of different subgenres. So over the coming week, as well as any other reviews I manage to write up, I’ll be reviewing some of the Horror, Sci-Fi (and Crime) novellas recently released by Demain, as well as a number of titles in their excellent Short Sharp Shocks! imprint.
I have to admit that I don’t usually review crime thrillers, but there was something about Maggie of My Heart that drew my attention. It wasn’t just the great cover work by Adrian Baldwin, that old-fashioned camera seemingly slightly sinister sitting there in isolation, nor the fact that this was the first (published) title in the new Murder! Mystery! Mayhem! Series from Demain. No, I think it was the back-cover blurb this time that sold it to me – a combination of post-war London, blackmail and murder, and the implicit promise of a strong nourish femme fatale with her own agenda and agency. It all sounded so interesting that I just had to start reading and see where author Alyson Faye took the story.
The novella has an engaging start, as protagonist Maggie Mears – now married and in a comfortable upper-class lifestyle she’s become accustomed to – is confronted with an all too familiar and unwanted face from her past. It’s her ex, Johnny, and a faint hope that he doesn’t recognise her is rapidly crushed; he knows exactly who she is, and the life she’s in now, and is determined to blackmail her for all that she’s worth, not to mention the elderly man she’s now married. While she sees her new life as an escape, he sees it as nothing less than rank betrayal and wants to bring her back into his orbit. It’s a classic noir set-up, with the potential to devolve into clichés and tropes, but instead Faye makes it her own by developing Maggie as her own independent, femme fatal character determined not to be brought back down to his level. As the plot progresses, we get two distinct tracks – Maggie’s attempts to ensure that Johnny doesn’t get to control her life again, and glimpses into their shared past when he was the dominant one, pimping her out in wartime London
I should highlight that this isn’t always an easy novella to read – Faye doesn’t pull any punches in describing the base, cruel, animalistic Johnny and his brutal behaviour towards Maggie (and indeed others). There’s a moment early on in the novella where Maggie calmly, almost clinically describes “An old familiar pain,” as he twists her elbow to stop her slapping him. It’s a brilliant subtle and evocative phrase, yet loaded with pain and subtext, that not only sets out Maggie and Johnny’s relationship in just a few words but also demonstrates Faye’s tremendous skill as a writer. Indeed, the writing throughout Maggie of my Heart is so evocative and atmospheric that it often feels like a noir film brought to life; there are constantly moments where you can almost see the black and white, smoke-wreathed footage appear in front of your eyes.
Maggie is a fantastic protagonist, so well brought to life, and Johnny is as well, seemingly constructed out of nothing but flaws and an abusive viewpoint. His familiarity with Maggie at the start of the story is unsettling, disgusting, obviously an invasion, and as the novella progresses we get to see more of how he views life and treats people, above all Maggie. She’s nothing but a piece of property that he owns, and yet somehow loves in his own twisted manner. There are descriptions of how Maggie was pimped out, and sections where Johnny would abuse her, and some johns, with casual and sadistic acts of violence are both vivid and difficult to read. Staccato sentences and phrases emphasise the blows. The scamming, the violence, blackmail and gas-lighting aren’t airbrushed at all; the dark side of noir – so often ignored or overlooked in exchange for delighting in the aesthetic – is left exposed for all to see by Faye through her writing. No-one comes away clean, though Maggie at least seems to be sympathetic. But she’s also a protagonist with a diamond-hard core – a real noir dame not to be messed with. She has her own game and her own priorities, and while there are some elements of her like Johnny – ruthlessness, an ability to con and play a long game, she does seem like a basically decent person.
Maggie of my Heart is a brilliant piece of crime thriller writing, and has stayed with me for weeks after finishing it. Alyson Faye is an astonishingly accomplished writer, deftly and easily creating this post-war noir world that Maggie and Johnny appear from organically. The atmosphere and characterisation is second to none, and the whole thing feels like a black and white film that’s been lost to time, finally brought back to life on the pages of the novella by Faye. The relationship between Maggie and Johnny is the centre of the novella and it’s a spellbinding portrayal; you feel like you’re being dragged along in a journey where bad things are going to continuously happen and spiral out of control. One of them won’t survive by the final page, and it’s to Faye’s great credit that she keeps you guessing until then. A spectacular success, and I look forward to seeing what else Faye writes in the future – I would certainly hope to see another entry from her in the Murder! Mystery! Mayhem! series.