Admittedly, Linda Barnes’ 1989 224 page novella The Snake Tattoo doesn’t look too crap, although it doesn’t look that great either.
A “Carlotta Carlyle Mystery”, it certainly is a title, series, and writer I’ve never come across or heard about. The title screams cheesy generic mystery with a central iconic image or theme, while the photo-art on the cover tells me more than enough about the heroine. Delicate, feminine features, hands and make-up are set against the grimy barrel of a pistol, and a tatty denim jacket.
Evidently Carlotta Carlyle is a female with a capital F, balancing beauty and mystique with hardness and determination. Even the Sunday Times review on the front cover speaks to this weighted dialectic, specifically referring to the author as Ms Barnes.
I feel like I’m going to see Carlotta tackle situations from a perceived and telegraphed “man’s world”, like the very fact of her having her genitals on the inside is going to be touted as a virtue. Cue strong, rich female characters striving independently against a cast of two-dimensional and ineffectual males, and quite rightly and admirably, given the publication date.
Flipping the book over to read the blurb, it looks like Carlotta’s investigations are going to have her “cruising the red light district by night” and “prowling round a very expensive private school”. Well, all aboard for a very open and exposed delve into the early 90s perception of class.
Bizarre claims in the last paragraph that she “has the builders in” are hopefully not as polysemic or metaphoric as they appear.
First impressions out the way, let the reading commence…
So it took a while to get started, but once I did I managed to digest The Snake Tattoo in two short evenings. Quite frankly, I’m disappointed I couldn’t find more to hate about this one. Still, it breaks into Crap Looking Books quite nicely.
Carlotta Carlyle is a straight-talking no-swearing ex-cop by day and cab driver by night, and her world view can be summed up in the following made-up quote: “I used to be a cop, and it gives me an eye for detail that makes near-omnipotent narration in the first person so much easier.”
Occasionally her words have the craft and confidence of a Dragnet or Blade Runner voice over, but she explains her jokes too readily, and absolutely everything and everyone must be analysed in absolute detail, robbing them of any mystery or hidden depth. Stab wounds don’t get to add character by themselves, we have to know exactly what kind of knife they came from and when, even if it’s irrelevant to the narrative itself.
Sometimes my reader’s eye saw Carlotta staring into space chalking up the minutiae of a room while the other characters shuffled awkwardly around her waiting for her to notice them again.
The reader is directly addressed as “you” with no explanation of who they are, and it feels too much like they and Ms Carlyle have just met and she’s showing them around her shitty home and through her day, trying her best to impress on them that she’s worth knowing and worth following. Unfortunately this approach fails to inspire any confidence in her abilities or intelligence, since her descriptions make it feel like she herself is opening her eyes and seeing everything and everyone for the first time, including her own face and a man with whom she’s supposedly had an extensive love affair.
Halfway through the book something hit me. Every man she meets (including the delightfully under-age Jerry) is trying to fuck her or get fucked by her, and every woman she meets is someone she wants so badly to be instead of being herself. Maybe that’s character building and fine craft, but it just made me hate Carlotta as much as Carlotta does. It felt like I was sat listening to someone I don’t know whine about shit I don’t care about, channeling the business of everyone else through her own empty self. She’s a few decades to early for the cyberpunk boom, but I can’t help feeling she and her empty shell of a self would be right at home there.
Her ongoing need to fill that emptiness is no more prevalent than when a large unknown man barges into her home with a knife and the first thing she does is comment how glad she is that he’s attractive. I’m never convinced that she thinks that law, honour, justice, and her work are more important than fucking anything that moves, only that they get in the way and you have to lump it.
This becomes quite apparent when, having spent the narrative preaching and practicing a holier-than-thou attitude towards corrupt cops, she suddenly decides to turn crooked when the opportunity arises to shoot dead a paedophile and frame the scene as if it was self defence. The line she apparently walks makes any message or code seem more damaging than moral. Prostitution is bad. Rape is bad. Paedophilia is bad (although one line I had to read more than a few times seems to claim that crushing on hot teenage boys is okay). Wild fucking and the desire to have it with everything that moves, well that’s just fine by Carlotta Carlyle.
The grand narrative conclusion? Her two cases unravel themselves pretty much without her help or intervention, and she makes up her mind over which of the remaining living male characters she’d rather fuck. Naturally it’s the abusive arrogant one.
She could do better, and she should have.
So maybe I enjoyed this one a little, but I’m a sucker for disappointment.