Friday, February 19, 2010

The Book You Have to Read:
“Alley Kat Blues,” by Karen Kijewski

(Editor’s note: This is the 82nd installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s pick comes from Connecticut writer Karen E. Olson. She’s the Shamus Award-nominated author of two different series, one featuring Annie Seymour, a trouble-attracting New Haven police reporter [Shot Girl], the other starring Las Vegas tattoo artist-cum-sleuth Brett Kavanaugh [Pretty in Ink]. In addition, Olson is among the five writers of the blog First Offenders.)

Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller. When you think of these three writers, you immediately think of how they helped push the female private eye into the limelight in American detective fiction. Their characters (Kinsey Millhone, V.I. Warshawski, and Sharon McCone, respectively) brought women’s crime fiction into the 20th century.

But there were other women writing about female private eyes, too: Lillian O’Donnell (Gwenn Ramadge), Linda Barnes (Carlotta Carlyle), Laura Lippman (Tess Monaghan), and Karen Kijewski.

I started reading crime fiction when I turned 30. Before that, I was a book snob. I was an English major and I read a lot of classics and “literary” fiction. I read some Oprah books. But when I first read Marcia Muller and Sara Paretsky, I was hooked. I had no idea that women were writing such amazing, kick-ass female characters. I started trolling the library shelves for more.

That’s when I found Karen Kijewski. She introduced P.I. and former bartender Kat Colorado in Katwalk in 1988. But I didn’t discover her until Kat’s Cradle in 1991. In all, Kijewski wrote nine Kat Colorado books. After Stray Kat Waltz in 1998, sadly, there were no more novels in the series.

Kat Colorado is like the other female private-eye characters, in that she has an extended family that’s not necessarily related to her by blood: an adopted grandmother, Alma; an adopted “cousin” of sorts in Lindy, a teenager she helped get off the streets; and Charity, her best friend who’s an advice columnist but never takes her own advice. Kat’s also got a steady boyfriend in Hank Parker, a Las Vegas homicide detective.

While many of these fictional female gumshoes sort of mesh together after a while, Kat stands out because of her voice. She is witty and wise and makes mistakes, and Kijewski does not shy from exploring issues, despite the predominately light tone of her stories.

In this week’s “forgotten” book, Alley Kat Blues, published in 1995 and sixth in the series, Kat and Hank are having trouble because Hank is too involved in a serial-killer case and is wrapped up with a sexy stripper who claims that her sister, a woman who fits the profile of the so-called Strip Stalker’s victims, is missing. At the same time, Kat is investigating the death of a young former Mormon girl, whose mother is convinced that she was murdered.

Kat Colorado lives in Sacramento, California, but half of this book takes place in Vegas. The reader is treated along the way to Kat’s perceptions of Sin City:
The McCarran Airport in Las Vegas is like no other airport in the world. The sound of slot machines assaulted my senses. Cigarette smoke packed my nostrils, filtered into my brain, and began the process of wantonly killing off brain cells. Las Vegas, home of the Seven-Deadly-Sins-Advertised-And- Advocated-In-Neon-Twenty-Four-Hours-A-Day, greeted me.
In re-reading Alley Kat Blues, I was struck by how overt Kijewski is when discussing Mormon religious views of women. Maybe it’s because I’m hooked on the HBO-TV show Big Love, which also explores the Mormon faith and polygamy, but Kijewski’s observations seem to me very direct. For instance, during a conversation with the Mormon girl’s mother, in which the mother says that her daughter died because “she wasn’t good,” Kat Colorado reflects:
I thought, then, of all the people who really weren’t good: Charles Keating, the Lincoln Savings and Loan three-piece-suited thug who bilked and defrauded thousands, many of them elderly and on a pension and last chance; Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker, who had raped and terrorized numerous women and their families; Saddam Hussein; brain-dead skinheads who thought Hitler was a swell guy and whose sole ambition was to be just like him. All those people were lousy human beings and they
were still alive.
And in a conversation with the girl’s best friend, the friend says: “A good Mormon woman doesn’t automatically go to heaven, or not to the best part of heaven--only if her husband says so.”

This book is peppered with religious fanatics, including the dead girl’s brother, who is living on his own compound with two wives and a passel of children; the girl’s former fiancé, who tried to rape her because if she was raped then she’d be only too grateful to marry him; and the girl’s father, who believes that his daughter deserved to die because she rejected the church.

Alley Kat Blues’ secondary plot, concerning Hank and his inappropriate involvement with the stripper, also looks at the role of women in men’s lives. The stripper tells Kat at one point that Hank likes the fact that he feels she needs him, that he doesn’t feel Kat needs him, which is emasculating. This causes Kat to ruminate on who she is as a woman and what role she wants to play--if any--in Hank’s life, and how “need” should really be defined.

Karen Kijewski won the Shamus and Anthony awards for her Kat Colorado books. Kat is funny, wise, and tough, everything a female private-eye protagonist should be. She definitely influenced how I approached writing my own tough, female protagonist, Annie Seymour, and even my less tough but fiercely independent Brett Kavanaugh. Anyone looking for a solid mystery featuring a female private eye should most definitely turn to Kat Colorado.


pattinase (abbott) said...

A new name to me and one I will check out.

Evan Lewis said...

Too bad she quit writing. Krazy Kat would have been a great title.

Steve Lewis said...

No one I've asked has known what happened to Karen Kijewski. The general consensus is that when her contract was up, it wasn't renewed, and discouraged, she simply stopped writing.

This may be true, but she was well known, and obviously well-regarded, given her awards and good reviews. All of her books sold well, as far I know.

kathy d. said...

A thought-provoking question: whatever happened to Karen Kijewsky. Maybe Google knows.

Thanks for this reminder. I had read some of her books but stopped. Now I will get this one and start to reread her books.

And thanks for the kudos to Paretsky, Grafton and Muller. I've read all of Muller's and Paretsky's, but not all of Grafton's.

Glad to see women writers get some recognition.

Janet Rudolph said...

Karen was very active in our local chapter of MWA, and she was at my home for at least one Literary Salon. Would love to know what she's doing now. Thanks for posting.

Barry Rich said...

I am glad that Karen Kijewski is still remembered highly by some at this point, years after her last book. I read her from the beginning, at about the same time as Sue Grafton's "alphabet books" were catching on. I thought she was every bit as good as Grafton and was very sorry to see her books just stop. I kept looking for a new book or some news for a while, to no avail, and also wonder what happened to her.

Skip Baker said...

Many years ago (circa 1977) Fat City was one of the few places to get a good cup of coffee in Sackatomatoes (or at least that I know of).

I have always thought Karen Kijewski served me a Coppucino one night at Fat City. The person who served me looked like she was looking far into my soul. When I asked what was up with that, the light that had been in her eyes shut down just like a curtain had been closed.

I have seen her pictures in her books and the likeness to the bartendar (esse?) is very possible ...

It would end a great question in my life if I knew, or if any of the subsequent characters in her books (and I have read most of them) were partly me ...

Anonymous said...

I loved her books, and I hope she'll write and be published again. I would buy more of her books.

Irene Shurdut-Kelley said...

Karen Kijewski was my 10th grade English teacher in Massachusetts. She gave me my love of reading. I have enjoyed reading all of her books.