By Lisa Brackmann
(Soho Publishing; 2015; 2013; 2010)
I like a lot of the hardboiled female characters I have read by women crime writers in the last couple of years: Gran Batch or the twisted grifter Melissa in Patti Nase Abbott’s terrific Home Invasion; Eve Moran, the psychotic mother in Abbott’s novel,
Concrete Angel; Sherri Parlay in Vicki Hendricks’s Miami Purity; Cinda, the streetwalker girlfriend of handicapped vigilante Dean Drayback or Orella Malalinda, the crazed Mexican Mafia doyenne who has targeted Dean and his simian helper, Sid, in Elaine Ash’s Hard Bite and Bite Harder.Not that the tough, no-nonsense women created by male writers are inferior. Most are quite good–Selena by Greg Barth, Sweet Melinda Kendell in Eryk Pruitt’s Hashtag, Janet, the gun-toting dead-eyed blonde in Todd Morr’s Jesus Saves, Satan Invests. All are as capable, cool and daring as their male counterparts—and some are ready, willing and able to maim, torture or even kill.
But for a badass chick, you really want that woman’s touch. Female authors somehow add that little something that brings their protagonists right up off the page. These are femmes that are almost invariably fatale.
One of the best female crime authors working in print right now is Lisa Brackmann, whose three books featuring ex- G.I. Ellen (Ellie) McEnroe kept me turning pages like a salt-deprived alcoholic downing beer-nuts with Qingdao and well bourbon.
Here a bit of back story is required:Ellen is a former National Guard medic who fell for a schmuck intelligence officer while stationed in the red zone of Iraq. The romance went as sour as the war did, but not until Ellen got blown up while trying to help Iraqi prisoners survive brutal interrogation by her boyfriend and other red-white-and-blue thugs.
She recovers at an Army hospital in the D.C. area and the two get married. He becomes contract muscle for a private contractor that collects intel for U.S. spy agencies then drags her with him to his new posting in Beijing.
There she finds him in bed with a Chinese girl and the two are splits Ville. The husband, Trey, wants a divorce. Ellie stubbornly refuses to sign the paperwork he needs to get one.She becomes adept at dodging her ex, and spends her time traveling, learning Chinese and becoming involved with Chinese artists.
Some of those artists are sincere activists who support freedom of speech and action, criticize Chinese society under the new capitalism and openly create whatever their consciences dictate. Among them is Lao Zhang, a father figure within Chinese art circles. Ellie becomes one of his trusted friends and eventually his agent—which makes her a target for multiple spy agencies including the contract hooligans who employ her husband.Many others, however, are sell-outs looking for enrichment in the emerging oligarch economy, selling mediocre work to millionaires and foreigners.
Ellie’s problem is trying to figure out who is real and who is fake—while staying ahead of the posse of alphabet soup agencies that are watching her every mood, tracing her Internet visits, reading her email and ransacking her home and personal effects.
Brackmann does a good job of putting herself in Ellie’s shoes, drawing on her own extensive visits to China for the kind of detail that breathes verisimilitude into her stories. She makes Ellie a little crude, less a Chinese culture expert than an ex-G.I. with a sense of humor, even under dire circumstances.For example, in Rock, Paper, Tiger, Ellie hides out from pursuers in a farmhouse, wearing borrowed clothing. Just before some of the villains appear, looking for her, she uses an outhouse to relieve herself. As she takes a dump, one of the farmers’ pigs peeks through a hole and the building’s side and helps itself to some of her excretion.
“Pigs eat shit.” Ellie thinks to herself. “Who knew?”
While trying to learn who killed a waitress doubling as a prostitute during a decadent party held by a billionaire's kids in Dragon Day, Ellie visits an artificial town where costume dramas are filmed.
One of the suspects, an American who helps the wealthy children launder money in violation of Chinese law, offers her a bit part in a film his client is making.
“You want a part? I’m supposed to have a wife?" he asks. "She’s dreadfully unhappy and addicted to opium. I bet you’d kill it.”
“I don’t tell him to go fuck himself,” Ellie thinks. “And people say I have no self-control."McEnroe is not Wonder Woman. Ellie knows no martial arts and often finds herself on the verge of tears in the face of danger. When she falls under the control of some of China’s vast army of spies, she is sensible enough to be afraid for her safety but snarky enough to bait her captors and take whatever punishment they may administer.
She may not be a female Liam Neeson, but as the novels progress, we learn that she is familiar with firearms, took her Army training seriously and, like any other G.I. whose primary Military Occupational Specialty is infantry, she can shoot with accuracy and a cool head. But Ellie is not rough trade: her main assets as a protagonist are her nerviness and her ability to read the personalities of those she encounters.These three books show McEnroe’s progression as an adopted “China hand,” resisting government bureaucrats, the ultra-wealthy among the country’s parasitic oligarch class, run-of-the-mill police and all manner of security men. As was the case in Getaway, her thriller set in the narcotraficante-ridden world of Mexican drug cartels, the most brutal thugs she encounters are Americans.
Brackmann is masterful at conjuring a paranoiac atmosphere in which even those who win her trust are not completely trustworthy. While her heroine has no training as a detective and little ability in self defense, there is plenty of action in these three volumes—Ellie gets kidnapped, imprisoned, roughed-up and chased through a variety of locales, including shabby restaurants and karaoke joints, the homes of the super rich, run-down neighborhoods, out-of-the way tourist stops and all-but-deserted “new cities” that are more like ghost towns than real communities.And her path is littered with dead bodies.
Are Brackmann’s books thrillers in the classic “Mask of Dimitrios” or “Third Man” sense? Not exactly. For one thing, Lisa is far to the left of classic conspiracy-oriented thriller writers. Her stories have a populist flare and an optimistic attitude about people that is unusual for someone whose fiction tilts toward the paranoid.They aren’t traditional noir tales, either, though there is plenty of transgressive guilt in her plot lines and a thin vein of nihilism that runs through all three books.
Mainly they are sharp-edged reads with an immensely likeable heroine, some really repulsive villains and a host of major characters whose personalities and motivations are as opaque as marble. These are less “whodunits” in the classical sense than they are “who-are-they-working-fors.”Like the best of John Le Carre, Brackmann’s stories are steeped in betrayal. At their core is the police state mentality of the Chinese authorities—people who decide you are a threat then look for a reason why.
Ellie’s history is threaded through the three novels like gold silk embroidered in the accent band of an expensive silk Qipao. Read all three novels, one right after another in the order published. If you do, you’ll be rewarded with many hours of enjoyment. This is gripping stuff.