by Evangeline Jennings
360 pages, Starshy
Review by Pat Black
I’m picturing a garish front cover to a dimestore paperback, perhaps from the early 1960s. It features a beautiful, voluptuous woman. She has her back to us, but with a half-turn at the hip and shoulder, the better to give her figure some depth. You know this pose.
She has long, glossy black hair, with a bluish Superman sheen. Her eyeshadow might be a little on the thick side, but it complements her green eyes - gypsy eyes - and she may have held the record for the world’s pointiest bra before Madonna bust it on her Blonde Ambition tour. Her long legs are braced, and her posture is defensive, like she might reverse-kick you in the throat if you get too close, if your eye is a little too glad. And it is; and she would.
In the foreground, of course, there’s a private eye, with a brow, a jawbone and a stare, eyebrows like old razor wounds, all simple, hard angles like a baby’s building blocks. He’s wearing a hat and a grub-yellow mac, and he might be smoking a cigarette. But the perspective isn’t what it seems. He’s not hiding in the shadows, watching her. Those proportions are correct (M. Hooper, Amity Island, 1975). He’s not checking the woman out from the shadows. She towers overhead, spotlit, a good head above Centrepoint, and she is preparing to step on him, with clear-eyed contempt.
There’s a car on this cover, of course. Something sleek; something sharp like a stiletto; something lethal.
Riding In Cars With Girls is a collection of short stories and novellas from Evangeline Jennings, whose work formed a quadrant of the Cars And Girls anthology. The stories share a similar flavour to that collection – noir as they come, violent, often startlingly erotic, but with a feminist slant that takes them out of the shucks-guffaw irony that occasionally blights crime stories - something we have Quentin Tarantino to thank or blame for.
The stories are all named after classic or well-known cars, often with a bit of muscle to them and plenty of wild horses under the bonnet.
We start with “Firebird”, as in Firebird Trans Am. It sees a glamorous woman driving the titular vehicle into a dusty dead-end town, a place dried to tinder and surrounded by a rapidly encroaching forest fire. Dorothy drinks, while our writer-narrator-barwoman pores. Dorothy fascinates the woman behind the bar, and there’s a suggestion that this fascination could turn into something more combustible, so much so that they both lament the fact that they’re straight.
Dorothy is too hot to handle for some of the swamp-dwelling locals, and a tragedy is set in motion which ends in fire, counterbalanced by cold, hard revenge.
“Escort” is a two-hander, swapping between tough cop Bex and Ruthie, a sex worker on the run who has shagged a Mafia don to death. This one runs through a blizzard of bullets as the two women’s paths cross, and double-cross. At first it’s a cat and mouse story, compelling in its way. You think you’ve seen this movie before – until it turns into something else. It becomes a love story that evoked Elmore Leonard’s Out Of Sight, as well as Sarah Waters’ work. Credit, also, for a brave, brutal finale.
“911” sees Nikki and Alex taking on another controlling male, with one as an avenging angel for the other. After taking revenge on Goran, a drug-dealing, nightclub-dwelling sleazebag, the pair drive in their Porsche through Scandinavia and then further south into Germany, always faster than their pursuers. Alex is a man trapped in a woman’s body, one of a number of nods towards protagonists who don’t usually top the bill in classic noir thrillers, and indeed usually only appear in them if there’s a contrived freak aspect – disabled people, gay people, trans people.
Wendy, one of the main characters in “Audi”, is deaf and suffering from fibromyalgia and anxiety – but if you’re thinking that equals vulnerability, forget it. She shoots an office worker taking a cigarette break outside his office, putting “a hole where his heart would be if he was a human being”, before blowing “a plume of smoke away with her fingertips”.
Wendy and the narrator of “Audi” are competing in an illegal road race, the Scumball Rally, a global re-imagining of the Cannonball Run. As well as winning the race, the girls are looking to settle a few scores along the way. Cars are stolen; bad guys get zapped. Bullets and dames; cars and criminals. Noir but not.
The thing that stuck out for me was how these two girls have the males in the story wrapped around their fingers – fingers which Wendy uses to cheerfully insult them before, during and after their expiration. The two lovers have a substantial online following eating out of their hands; the act of removing their tops on a webcam is tantamount to landing a million fishes, gasping and thrashing their last on deck. The fact that the girls are barely out of school is another weapon to be turned against sleazebags who think they’re predators, until they’re prey. Sex is how men are manipulated, controlled, duped and defeated. Every single time, they stumble into the trap. They don’t have a prayer.
I have interacted with Evangeline Jennings, but I don’t know her. Occasionally I’ve wondered if she was one person, or several. Once or twice I’ve become convinced she’s a man masquerading as a woman. (A word of warning to any online flirts out there: you just never know who’s on the other end of the wiring, until you know. I’ve seen a few star-struck readers go weak at the knees over someone of the same sex without realising it, with tragicomic - but mainly comic - consequences.) This story convinced me that she was a woman, for sure, gleefully sending up genre and gender conventions, happy to take seldom-driven routes. But I’m prepared to be proved wrong on this. Even if I met someone called Evangeline Jennings in person, I wouldn’t be totally sure that I was meeting the author. This is good.
“Transam”, the shortest piece in the book, sees a woman chasing her husband’s killer. The killer, Katie, has stolen the husband’s car, which is fitted with a tracking device. Our narrator is on a collision course with Katie, but identities and loyalties are blurred by the end.
Another component of many of these stories: families can f*ck you up.
We close with “Crown Victoria”, which featured in Cars And Girls. It is the book’s most transgressive story. Again, ostensibly it’s a revenge tale targeting rapists and abusers, but for large parts it’s an exploration of a BDSM relationship between two extremely damaged people. The blood and bullets in this story seems almost incidental.
Riding In Cars With Girls delivers on every promise the pulp fiction genre can make, but does so in a sly, subversive way. Sometimes you think you’re reading a story about gangsters and contract killers, only to discover it’s actually a tender love story. The movie Bound might be the closest equivalent I can think of.
Jennings clearly relishes crime writing, but she’s attuned to weirder frequencies, obscure wavelengths. This is a trip well worth taking. As for where it’ll stop – who knows?
Read the author interview here.