Darragh McManus’s The Polka Dot Girl, is a very unusual place. On the surface it resembles countless cities to be found in American-influenced hardboiled detective fiction, being sleazy at its heart and increasingly affluent the further you move out into the suburbs. Its lower social reaches teem with crooks and cops, prostitutes, drunks and drug addicts, all of whom are preyed upon by the corrupt politicians and wealthy business folk who gaze down on the city from their position of privilege like so many vultures anticipating their next feast. So far, so conventional – but what gives this novel a notable twist is that Hera City is entirely populated by women.
The story is told by Hera City Police Department detective Eugenie ‘Genie’ Auf der Maur, who investigates the murder of Madeleine Greenhill, a young woman found floating in Hera City’s docks wearing a polka dot dress. Ambitious and conscientious, Genie is in her second year as a detective and keen to prove herself, not least because Madeleine Greenhill is the only daughter of Hera City’s most feared woman, the matriarch Misericordiae ‘Misery’ Greenhill.
Struggling to compensate for her inexperience and lack of self-confidence, Genie initially finds herself grasping after shadows in Hera City’s labyrinth. Surviving an assassin’s attempted hit has the perverse effect of steadying Genie’s nerves, however, not least because it tips her off that Maddy Greenhill’s death was not a straightforward tragedy of a young woman in the wrong place at the wrong time, but a more sinister affair engineered by a powerful cabal with secrets to hide.
It’s an intriguing set-up, and Genie makes for a very charming narrator. The book’s cover blurb suggests that we can anticipate ‘Sam Spade in lipstick and a dress’ but Genie, by her own admission an extremely petite example of a HCPD detective, is a much more vulnerable and sensitive character than Dashiell Hammett’s Spade or Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, both of whom are strong influences on her hardboiled patter.
Indeed, McManus and Genie establish their hardboiled credentials early in the story, as Genie leaves the Greenhill mansion after informing Misery of her daughter’s murder. “I drove straight home,” Genie tells us, “listening to a jazz station on the car radio. Sure, it’s a cliché – the wiped-out cop, in the middle of the night, driving through the dark streets with clarinets and cymbals in her ears, a smoke in her mouth and a fresh murder on her hands. All it was missing was the rain. But hey, I never said I was original. Besides, I’m a sucker for the classic stuff.”
That ‘classic stuff’ extends to the way in which The Polka Dot Girl mirrors the narrative arc of much of hardboiled detective fiction, as Genie pulls on the thread of a street-level murder only to find that the unravelling runs all the way up to the highest echelons of society, laying bare its greed, corruption and immorality.
This, despite the quirky setting of Hera City, is familiar territory for the crime fiction aficionado, and if you’re willing to buy into Genie’s knowing self-awareness of her place in crime writing mythology, then The Polka Dot Girl is an enjoyably offbeat take on the post-modern mystery novel. It’s overtly old-fashioned, and not only in the way it taps into the roots of the contemporary hardboiled crime genre. McManus litters the story with references to classical Greek tragedy and mythology: the obligatory femme fatale is called Cassandra, while geographical locations are given names such as Pasiphaë Prospect and Hecate Point. At the heart of the tale lies a religious cult which worships the moon goddess and appears to be derived from the Eleusinian Mysteries of Ancient Greece, a cult in which only women were indoctrinated.
It all makes for very pleasant meta-fiction cross-pollination, but what Darragh McManus is trying to achieve with his plethora of classical references and his women-only city is never made explicit. Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky are probably the best known of the authors who have adapted the hardboiled private detective voice, and created feminist heroines who take on men – and more importantly, perhaps, a historically male-dominated genre – to succeed on their own terms. McManus adapts the same tone – albeit one that’s painfully self-aware of its fictional history – to a woman-only narrative, but Genie’s investigation of the prevailing culture ultimately reveals that the female of the species is no more or less deadly than the male. Meanwhile, and despite the unique setting, the patriarchal origins of the language remain the same: the detectives are still known as ‘Dicks’, a prostitute’s client remains a ‘John’. A crucial plot-point requires a prostitute to be beaten almost to death by a group of (female) clients, only to find herself somehow pregnant when she emerges from the subsequent coma.
It’s arguable that McManus, who has a palpable affection for the tropes of the classic hardboiled novel, is simply retaining the linguistic conventions – fans of Black Mask-era pulp fiction, for example, will be delighted to find a hired killer referred to as a ‘gunsel’. It’s also true that McManus, in his career to date, has been more engaged with playing with the genre’s tropes than reinventing the wheel – his debut Cold! Steel!! Justice!!! (2010), published under the pseudonym Alexander O’Hara, was a spoof of Mickey Spillane-style masculinity, while Even Flow (2012) featured a trio of vigilantes waging war on society’s homophobes and misogynists.
All told, there’s a nagging sense throughout that McManus has missed a trick by not recalibrating his narrator’s voice and language in order to make the most of Hera City’s unique setting. That said, The Polka Dot Girl is a very interesting addition to the growing canon of Irish crime writing which confirms Darragh McManus’s promise. - Declan Burke
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.