Armed with a straight razor, rage, and her wits, a young woman confronts underhanded forces in this debut neonoir novel.
In her small Pacific Northwest community, Nicki Valentine is a tough-talking young woman with a 12th-grade education who lives in the shabby part of town. After her 40-hour, six-day week at the bakery, Nicki likes to go out drinking on Saturday night. As the book opens, she heads with her half brother and best friend, Quinn Halliday, for a classy joint where each hopes to get lucky: “East Towners are more than willing to take out the trash every once and awhile.” Nicki drinks with a likely prospect, whose friend suggests “a little private after-hours” at a house in a swanky neighborhood. Although the whole situation sets off alarm bells, Nicki thinks she can handle it: “Experience and the straight razor I’m slipping from my boot to my pocket say so.” But when they all arrive at the house, Nicki senses she’s being set up—and is sure of it when she realizes it’s Jonathan Garver’s place. The sight of him makes her hands go weak, for reasons related to Nicki’s past, and although Jonathan claims he just wants a quick chat, she plots and makes her escape. She has had a bad reputation since high school; even today, the chant “Go, Nicki!” can get to her, despite her seemingly hard exterior. Something bad happened when she was 14 years old, and Jonathan was a part of it, along with Ted Wells and Bobby James Sounder—who just happens to be running for mayor this year. What’s going on? Though Quinn has her back, no one else does, and the past is coming back to haunt Nicki in dangerous ways. If she handles things right, maybe this time she’ll come out ahead.
In his novel, Cummings skillfully develops Nicki’s character. At first, she seems to be all self-assurance, aware of her low social status yet above her circumstances (she’s a reader and obviously intelligent). As the story progresses, the author peels back layer after layer in well-written, psychologically believable, and revealing scenes that expose Nicki’s true vulnerability. Beginning in childhood, she was isolated from warmth. Today, though she can get sex partners easily, she’s never had a boyfriend and she has no girlfriends to chat with. The central episode, when Nicki was 14, is told in the kind of detail that allows readers to see just how helpless such a girl is, how much her surface precociousness should have been protected instead of manipulated. Also well-developed is the depth of Nicki’s relationship with Quinn, which becomes fully apparent over the course of the tale. The prose is sharp, observant, and scathingly honest. Though Nicki gets a chance to confront Jonathan, there is no moment when he realizes the harm he’s done: “I smack blame at him, he smacks blameless back.” A satisfying, believable ending ties all the threads together.
An entertaining, psychologically observant thriller.