Sunday, January 28, 2007

Review of Cruel Poetry

Florida is a strange and terrible place. It is full of lunatics, elderly people whose senility threatens what's left of American democracy, real-estate developers, foreign tourists with an affinity for bullets, Kathleen Harris and bugs the size of your head. To top it all off, George W. Bush's brother is running the show. One can't help but be amazed that the legislature hasn't voted to form its own army and invade Cuba...yet.
The madness that can be found in America's only phallic state has long been fertile ground for crime novelists. Since John D. MacDonald kicked off his Travis McGee series by giving his protagonist the address Slip F-18, Bahia Mar, Lauderdale, Florida has been the setting for more crime novels than anyone could ever hope to read in a lifetime. There are the big names, like Leonard and Hiassen, which people think of first, but there are also good, but often overlooked authors, like Randy Wayne White, Les Standiford and Charles Willeford.
Vicki Hendricks belongs to the latter category of writers, but it would be a crime to overlook her latest offering, Cruel Poetry, (Serpent's Tail: 2007) an unrepentantly dirty tale of sexual obsession. The book centers around Renata, a beautiful, amoral young woman who makes her living as a prostitute. Those drawn into her orbit include Richard, a poet and professor who finds himself hopelessly infatuated with her, and Jules, a frustrated young writer who lives next to Renata and listens to her through the walls when she entertains clients. When you throw in Fransico, Renata's boyfriend/business partner, you have the makings of a love parallelogram. Throw in some murders and you've got a real party.
The book alternates between Renata, Richard and Jules' points-of-view, but the story belongs to Renata, who differs from the traditional Femme Fatale, in that she is well-intentioned. She tries to discourage Richard from throwing away his marriage, job and family for her and she is loyal to Jules as a friend. Still, she's dangerous. She prefers sex, but killing comes easily. It's all the same to her. As Hendricks puts it, " [Renata} is like a Florida panther, rare and wild, without reason or purpose of her own, supplying pure primitive beauty to the world." What works for panthers, however, doesn't work for people, no matter how well-intentioned they are.
Cruel Poetry is well-written and never gets off track, which is a danger, because it seems like every other scene is a sex scene. Sex scenes are dangerous because they are often gratuitous, or, worse yet, bad. Nothing kills a story faster than an unintentionally hilarious bedroom scene. When Hendricks does use a cringe inducing phrase like, "the heaven of her ass," one must bear in mind the context. In this case, she is writing from the point of view of a middle aged man obsessed with a younger woman. It's a cringe-worthy situation, and Hendricks knows it.
It is impossible to deny Hendricks' skill as a a thriller writer. She grabs the reader and doesn't let go until she had dragged him through a tangled web of lust and violence, to that most perverse of endings, a happy one, written in blood.

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