John Copenhaver follows up the critically-acclaimed Dodging and Burning with another inimitable historical crime novel in what is becoming his signature style. For years now, noir crime fiction through the eyes of adolescent girls has been the domain of the legendary Megan Abbott, but with The Savage Kind, John Copenhaver once again adds his own unique twist to this popular brand of narrative, and in doing so will have readers (and critics) sitting up and taking notice.
It is 1948 and two classmates are about to meet for the first time – altering the trajectory of their lives in ways they can’t yet fathom. Philippa Watson starts at a new school after she relocates to Washington, DC with her father and stepmother. From the moment she spots Judy Peabody, her interest is piqued and the convoluted slow dance towards friendship begins.
Their English teacher, Miss Martins sees in them kindred souls – longing to learn, advanced beyond their years, and destined to be bonded for life. She not only encourages them to solidify their friendship, she also shares with them her favorite works of literature. It is when Philippa is returning one of those books that she witnesses the first of several confusing events. Philippa keeps this to herself, but when both girls are present for a strange interaction between their favorite teacher and a fellow male student, they immediately know that something is not right. However, they also know that it is not their place to ever question an adult. That is until the body of that student is found drowned in the Anacostia River – spurring them to start an independent investigation.
John Copenhaver unspools his narrative by allowing both girls to tell their parts of the tale. Readers get to know each of them intimately, privy to their secrets and desires. In a master stroke, Copenhaver deploys a conceit at the start of each chapter with one of the girls breaking the fourth wall to address the reader directly. Immediately, this girl tells readers that she will not reveal whether she is Philippa or Judy until the moment is necessary, adding yet another mystery to a novel that has no shortage of labyrinthine plots. These multiple smaller mysteries augment the larger over-arching thematic questions being asked, adding subtle and powerful depth to The Savage Kind.
Long time readers may notice a scene that harkens back to Ian McEwan’s Atonement and an ongoing plot thread that echoes V. C. Andrews’ My Sweet Audrina, but what Copenhaver does with these concepts varies widely from the works alluded to. In fact, because of the school setting of this novel, all of the classic novels referenced are pivotal in style, tone, and themes. These books would make a strong reading list for those interested in the origins of Gothic and Noir literature.
The Savage Kind fits squarely in the noir tradition, but as with Megan Abbott’s work, John Copenhaver helps to advance that sub-genre by placing young women at the center of the action. It would have been cliché to portray Philippa and Judy as one being naughty and the other nice, but this is an author who is more interested in the shades of grey between these two extremes. Both of these girls are outsiders – one who was adopted, the other with a stepmother – and they have scars that linger, both physical and emotional. Readers know that they are being manipulated as the tale progresses, but just how that affects the ultimate outcome shall remain the knowledge of those who crack the spine of this fine work.
With only two novels under his belt, John Copenhaver is proving himself to be a force of nature in the crime fiction community. Both Dodging and Burning and The Savage Kind are familiar enough to provide comfort and grounding, but each work takes risks that help to confidently move this beloved genre forward in new, unexplored directions.
Disclaimer: An e-galley of this title was provided to BOLO Books by the author. No promotion was promised and the above is an unbiased review of the novel.