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“Woman with a Blue Pencil”: A disorienting, dazzling rabbit-hole of a book

Sometimes it’s mind-cleansing to see how long you can hold your breath swimming underwater, or to peer over the ledge of a skyscraper and wonder what you’d be thinking on the way down if you jumped, or experiencing the sweet delivery after driving through 100 yards of whiteout at 70 mph. Disorientation could be the next new discovery in the treatment of depression or anxiety or disenfranchisement, and without running the risk of discovering nascent tendencies for self destruction, “Woman with a Blue Pencil,” by Gordon McAlpine is the best test of wonderment and mind-sluicing invented this year for taking the leap in the safety of your reading chair.

After telling you that you absolutely need to read this book because it is fascinating and like no other book you’ve ever read, I may be still too dazzled from the experience to adequately describe the reason. “Woman with a Blue Pencil” is not a horrifying book, nor is it distressing. “Woman with a Blue Pencil” is a trip down the rabbit hole – it’s a falling through darkness with harshly-lit windows showing scenes of inevitability on the way down to what you know will be a dicey landing – and isn’t that what we read fiction for?

“Woman with a Blue Pencil” is a short, unpretentious paperback with a too-cute pulpy cover that, by the look of it, is destined to sell just enough to hold a spot in the fall/winter catalogue of Seventh Street Books, a publisher that far outpaces crime fiction publishers and obviously has the good taste to publish mid-list books for those of us who have the skill and interest to read intricate, literary narratives that were not written primarily for the movies.

And so that’s the pedigree for “Woman with a Blue Pencil.” I’ll try now to explain what makes this book so compelling.

Sam Sumida was born in Long Beach, California a year after his parents emigrated from Nagasaki, Japan. Sam is now an adult and he’s sitting in the Rialto Movie House in downtown Los Angeles watching Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” staring Humphrey Bogart, with the hope that he will sharpen his fledgling ability as a private investigator. Somebody had put a .22 slug in the head of his unchaste wife 11 months before and dumped her body in the harbor at San Pedro, stumping a disinterested LAPD in the process. Sam possesses a PhD in Oriental Art History and had taught as a part-time instructor at three local colleges. He’d given up his teaching positions to devote all his time to investigating Kyoko’s murder. The date was December 6, 1941. The movie and Sam’s life were interrupted by news from Pearl Harbor.

Maxine Wakefield, Associate Editor, Metropolitan Modern Mysteries, Inc., writes on December 10, 1941, to Takumi Sato in Los Angeles that, due to the tragic events at Pearl Harbor, she would of course not be able to publish his novel. “Now, even if you were to change your protagonist’s nationality, I believe current events dictate that your new Korean or Chinese hero be far more American/apple pie than your discarded character, the grieving Nisei academic, Sumida … you might even position your new Oriental hero against Japanese Fifth Columnists. Yes! Patriotism will sell in the coming period.”

And so Jimmy Park is the new Korean PI in William Thorne’s “The Orchid and the Secret Agent.” Maxine is pleased. Sato works up a grand jingoistic detective story under the Thorne pseudonym. And character Sam Sumida is blue-penciled out of his own story but not out of his real life, where he hovers alone and unrecognized as a fictional character cut from his history and future.

Disoriented? Of course you are; it’s a rabbit hole. “Woman with a Blue Pencil” is a book written about a book written about a book about a real man who gets cut from a fictional narrative and loses his identity but not his being.

You better read that again – no, you better read “Woman with a Blue Pencil.”

jeff@jeffmannix.com. Jeff Mannix is a local journalist and author.

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