Whatever’s going on in the world today, reading The Long, Long Afternoon makes me glad I don’t live in California circa 1959. Vespa does a brilliant job at evoking the racism, misogyny, and the straitjacket grip of societal expectation on everyday lives in this picture-perfect setting. And tells a gripping crime story at the same time.
The novel begins with the disappearance of Joyce Haney from her home; the only clues: some blood in the kitchen, a new-born baby’s stretch’n’grow and an empty beer bottle. Abandoned are her two preschool daughters – the older of them has been left to play outside, while the toddler cries disconsolately in her cot. That’s what Ruby finds when she comes upon the crime scene, ready for her cleaning shift one hot summer afternoon.
Ruby is a young black woman, distraught at what she finds, and struggles to deal with two children who are very upset. It isn’t a wonder that the neighbour, Mrs Ingram, arrives to take charge and calls the police. And it isn’t such a wonder that the cops arrest Ruby, as black people are always the default scapegoat whenever they’re found in connection with a crime. It’s lucky for Ruby, that the new detective, Mick Blanke, sees a gross injustice and gently prises from Ruby a statement before letting her go.
Mick’s from New York, used to dealing with hardened crims, but a lapse of judgement has sent him to the other side of the country to make a fresh start with his family. Nobody in this sleepy town police station takes him seriously and his fellow cops are inclined to take the easiest option to close a case. It’s lucky for Ruby, Mick doesn’t work that way. But if it wasn’t the convenient black person who is responsible for the disappearance, Mick is going to have to find the real culprit, and in a perfectly manicured world like Sunnylakes, you can bet nobody’s talking.
The story is told partly from Ruby’s point of view, partly from Mick’s with a few brief chapters via Joyce, showing her last day at home. The three characters are each struggling to find their voice in the world they’re stuck in. The expectations of post-war America for housewives to create the perfect home strangles Joyce and prescriptions of valium and similar drugs are de rigeur among her cohort. Ruby is caught up in the middle of a rising black movement, but she can’t see that anything’s going to change anytime soon. The question the author seems to be posing is: have we come all that far?
And then there’s the mystery to solve. Ruby gets involved as the only way to get behind the scenes of what really happened. Distrust of the police is rife, not only among the black community, but here in Sunnylakes, so Mick comes to rely on Ruby for inside knowledge – although it’s an awkward relationship. It’s lucky Mr Haney is desperate for some domestic help so she can return to the scene of the crime. But nobody wants Ruby snooping around where she shouldn’t which adds to the suspense.
Overall this is a very satisfying novel. Clues and facts emerge at a good pace. The two sleuths are complex and engaging. The themes of prejudice, the lingering effects of war and the American dream create an interesting backdrop, while the reader is aware that the 1960s civil rights movement, feminism and counter culture are just around the corner. The dialogue is entertaining and sounds authentic, at least to my Southern Hemisphere ear.
I whipped through The Long, Long Afternoon, although it’s not a relaxing read. Tension runs high and as I was back and forth to the kitchen, preparing the Christmas turkey, I really wanted to get back to Ruby and Mick, the hot swelter of a California summer mirroring the heat of my kitchen. This is one of those novels that ticks the genre fiction box as well as the literary fiction box and as a debut author, Vespa is certainly a new talent to keep an eye on. A four and a half out of five read from me.