Review: 23 SHADES OF BLACK (The Imaginary Press 2010)
Author: K.j.a. Wishnia
23 SHADES OF BLACK is a real stand-out among hardboiled mysteries. For one thing, the main character, a New York cop named Filomena Buscarsela, is a woman of Ecuadorian descent. For another, although Filomena's tough as nails, beneath her toughness lies both keen intelligence and empathy. In addition, this female character is the creation of a male author. K.j.a. Wishnia (the "K" stands for "Kenneth") has succeeded where most male authors tend to fail. Without turning her into a saint (at least, not too much of one), Wishnia has created a likable and realistic female protagonist in a story told in the first person. This alone should probably have earned Wishnia the Edgar, but the story offers much more to support that position.
The story is actually told in retrospect, which is oddly (but effectively) conveyed in the first person present tense. As in "I get out of the car and get my nightstick . . .," as if it's happening right now, rather than back in the early-to-mid 1980s. This lends the story an immediacy it might not otherwise have.
Filomena and her partner, Bernie ("a beef-brained cabeza de chorlito so cerebrally-challenged he couldn't pick his own nose without the aid of an instruction manual and a detailed map"), end up on an emergency call for a toxic leak at a food stamp center. Apparently, the leak is coming from an insecticide factory next door. Without waiting for a hazmat unit or rescue workers, Filomena charges into the building and saves someone. (Disbelief had to be suspended here, before realizing this was pre-9/11 and the anthrax scares of the future.)
After the incident, Filomena just can't let go of what happened. Even though questions of sabotage are raised, no one seems to be following up. A suspect is identified and he ends up dead. And Filomena is the only one who seems to care. She asks questions, only to be smacked down. She follows leads, only to be thwarted. A reporter who's been calling Filomena with questions suddenly gets cold feet. Not good signs.
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