Monday, February 1, 2016

Ninth Life by Clea Simon

Reviewed by Jeanne

Full disclosure: I read an early chapter of this book and was sent a free copy after publication.  I was under no obligation to review, favorably or otherwise.

Teenaged Care is living a precarious life on the streets, trying to stay away from the worst of the low-lifes who haunt the dark alleys and docks of the city.  She had been mentored by an older man who worked as a private investigator, and his death has left her all but friendless.  She looks out for Tick, a younger boy who may already be getting in too deep by running errands for dealers and other shady figures.

When she sees a stray cat in trouble, Care intervenes to save it and earns herself a feline companion. 

And not just any feline, either.  Blackie, who serves as the narrator for the book, is a shrewd judge of character, human and otherwise. He is streetwise in ways that Care is not, but is hampered in his ability to communicate his well-considered opinions.  Unlike many non-human narrators, Blackie is meticulously observant and erudite, but always with a slight remove: he is quite aware he is a cat and quite aware that a cat is both predator and prey.  He feels a kinship with the girl, who is in much the same situation though she may not realize it. He’s alarmed to realize that she is bent on finding out what happened to her former mentor.  He knows that while her youth is a definite advantage in many ways, she also has the impetuousness, the feeling of invulnerability, and the fearlessness which can lead to disaster.

And it appears that Care is well on her way to such a disaster as she persists in asking dangerous questions of ruthless people.  

While Simon’s books have always tended to have more grit than the average cozy, this book is a definite departure.  The urban setting could be post-apocalyptic or just a particularly grim inner city area peopled by scavengers: runaway children, drug addicts, prostitutes, petty criminals, and the crime lords who prey on them. What could have been unremittingly bleak is softened by Blackie’s narration. He sounds like a bit like a Victorian gentleman: not prudish, but descriptive and analytical, eschewing street slang. If Sherlock Holmes were a cat, this is the sort of cat he would be.

The book’s main strength for me is the narrator.  Blackie has a unique voice and point of view.  He reads human body language well and notices things that Care does not, but his commentary is more factual than critical.  By that I mean Simon avoids using Blackie for social commentary.  It’s a technique several mystery authors have employed with mixed results.  Having an animal comment on human foibles can be both entertaining and illuminating, but some authors turn the animal into a mouthpiece for their own political viewpoints and for me, that tends to get very old very fast. Care intrigues him; at first, it comes from obligation, but it soon turns into affection.  From his point of view, Care is half grown kitten who needs guidance.

Blackie has his own personal puzzle as well: how did he come to be nearly drowned by those ruffians? The shot seems to have erased part of his memory. He cannot remember his life before the rescue, but he is a cat and what is important is the here and now.

That’s another aspect that I appreciate: we never lose sight of the fact that he is a cat.  His senses are more acute, his reflexes quicker. His size allows him to slip into and out of places a human cannot. But he doesn’t have brute strength nor can he read.  His paws aren’t hands.  He’s an older cat, and age is taking a toll but he doesn’t mourn his lost youth. Again, he lives in the NOW, not in the past or future.

I would recommend the book on the basis of the narrator alone, but Simon has also constructed some interesting mysteries along the way.  The conclusion is very satisfying, and leaves readers poised for more to come. Best of all, the book avoids what I refer to as “First In Series Syndrome” in which an author tries to pack in a lot of background before ever getting around to a plot or characterization. A cool, clever read with heart, just like Blackie himself.