Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          

GORDON McALPINE – Woman With a Blue Pencil. Seventh Street Books, trade paperback original, November 2015.

   Sam Sumida, a Japanese American academic living in LA on the eve of Pearl Harbor finds himself forced to turn private eye to investigate the murder of his wife by a white man: Jimmie Park is a Korean American agent battling an operation of the Japanese Fifth Columnists (*) in Los Angeles just after Pearl Harbor.

   Both Sam Sumida and Jimmie Park are characters in the same novel by Nisei Takumi Saito: the Sumida novel the one he was writing before Pearl Harbor and December 7th 1941, and the Park novel the revised post Pearl Harbor form of the novel resulting from his correspondence with Maxine Wakefield, an editor who is determined to model Saito’s novel into a successful book, even if she has to destroy any sense of Saito’s Japanese identity and turn his book into a pulpish spy novel written under a Caucasian pen name.

   We read the story in alternating chapters from the two very different novels within this novel that parallel each other. The Woman With the Blue Pencil is at least three novels in one: the increasingly paranoid and schizophrenic private eye novel being written about Sam Sumida; the pulpish Jimmie Park spy novel being sanitized of any hint of Japanese identity: and, the story of Takumi Saito, told only in the correspondence of Maxine his editor as she blue pencils his Nisei identity out of existence in his work and even his life.

   Maxine is the novel’s unlikely femme fatale, her seduction of the young author as real as that in any boudoir or dive, and her blue pencil as devastating as any black negligee or low cut gown in any noirish novel.

   The Woman With a Blue Pencil works on several levels, not the least of which is the Sumida private detective novel spiraling into schizophrenia and identity loss. The writing is assured, the manipulation subtle, and McAlpine wisely lets Takumi’s story tell itself.

   Maxine is presented as a realistic editor, not a monster, her almost motherly advice at one both right for the time and deadly to the artist and his work. It is a subtle statement about how society, represented by Maxine and the world of publishing, can seduce anyone to fit in while the world around them spiraling out of control, as well as a commentary on the plight of the artist in the market.

   I won’t say this is for everyone. I was a bit wary of it when I started, fearing it would be yet another didactic arty attempt to use the mystery form as a statement with no understanding of the form or love for it. But McAlpine, who previously wrote Hammett Unwritten, is well aware of the form and keeps a sure hand in a relatively short novel that is all the better for its brevity. With today’s headlines, the book is all the more contemporary in dealing with the difficulty of maintaining identity in an unpopular minority in a society in crisis and panic.

   (*) Since the book does not mention it, it needs to be pointed out that no Nisei, Japanese American, has ever betrayed this country before or after WWII. Despite urban legends to the contrary, no Nisei here or in Hawaii committed any act of treason or sabotage even after the Internment of Japanese Americans on the West Coast — more than can be said for German or other immigrants born here then or later.