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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Available Dark, by Elizabeth Hand ($14.99)

Available Dark continues the tribulations of Cass Neary, punk heroine of Generation Loss. It's dark, hard as nails, and -- bonus! -- it mostly takes place in Iceland during winter. Edgy + dark + more dark = cult winner.

About fifty pages in, I was thrilled to find wonderful writing and a quirky, noirish character made to entice a reader who has seen too many same old, same old books. I vowed that I wouldn't care if the mystery didn't hold together properly.

Cass is a photographer whose aesthetic is definitely not mainstream. She is attracted to photographs of the dead, to scenes of dismay and disaster. Weegee-esque. Reality captured and made grotesquely and ethereally beautiful. Cass is no spring chicken. I'm guessing she's in her late 40s. She's been heavily influenced by punk music and the renegade culture of NYC in the late 70s and 80s.

On the run from an investigation into a murder detailed in Generation Loss, Cass needs to get out of town. A mysterious letter from Iceland that may have come from Quinn, a former boyfriend, also pulls at her. When an offer suddenly appears from a Norwegian nightclub owner to examine some "unusual" photographs by former high-fashion photographer Ilkka Kaltunnen in Finland, she hops on the next plane out.

Kaltunnen, surprisingly, admits to having been influenced by "Dead Girls," a book Cass did in her younger years. When he shows her photographs of weirdly staged scenes of what appear to be people who have died in bizarre ways, she intuits that the photos are real. Kaltunnen claims that the bodies were never found, that they were instead given to the scavengers of nature to disburse and conceal. It's not Cass' job to judge anything other than the authenticity of the photos. In an era in which "Photoshopping" has virtually ceased to refer to a brand name but to the process of altering reality, authentic is a highly valuable condition.

Curious but limited to the job at hand, Cass certifies the pictures, then takes off for Iceland to find the mysterious person who sent her the letter. Almost immediately upon landing, she learns that Kaltunnen and his assistant have been murdered and Kaltunnen's house ransacked.

The book ties together the Icelandic and Finnish mysteries. The resolution was all right but put together in a rather slapdash way. In my opinion, it actually doesn't matter who did it or why. The journey was the thing. We learn Finnish and Icelandic mythology. We see what seems to be an endless variety of scenes featuring snow, sleet, cold, bitter wind, leaking boots, and chattering teeth. I loved it all.

Here's a little scene:
I stopped to crouch beside a trickle of water that emerged from a thumb-size cleft in the rock. Iridescent mud surrounded it, slicks of acid green and cobalt and cadmium yellow, colors I'd never seen before in the natural world. But of course this is where pigments come from, disgorged from the center of the planet to cool into vermilion and lapis lazuli. I held my hand above the fuming vent, gingerly dipped my finger into the water, and snatched it back. 
"Shit." I straightened, sucking on my finger tip, and held it out to Quinn. It had already blistered.
"You never learn," he said.

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