Katrina Carrasco

A Review of Katrina Carrasco’s “The Best Bad Things”

“The Best Bad Things” Book Cover

Historical crime fiction is a popular genre right now — you don’t need to look much further than Lyndsay Faye’s The Gods of Gotham. Well, The Best Bad Things by Katrina Carrasco is another entry in the canon of hard-boiled crime fiction, and it’s actually apt that Faye provides a blurb for this book. The Best Bad Things is hard-knuckled and packed with more punches than you can shake a stick at, but it is also an unusual novel in that it features a female who cross-dresses as a man acting as the “detective” of sorts. Set in 1887 in Washington Territory, the book concerns a woman named Alma Rosales who is a former lady detective with Pinkerton who has been thrown out for bad behaviour. She has crossed the street and now works for Delphine Beaumond, a woman who runs a West Coast smuggling ring.

Alma has wound up in Washington Territory to help sniff out how opium shipments stewarded by her boss are going missing. To do this, she invents a new identity as Jack Camp, and sets about infiltrating the den of thieves. However, there are moles and double crosses. Will Alma be able to keep up the rouse? Or will she be outed as a woman? That’s basically the thrust of this book, with the payoff being that if Alma succeeds in her role, she’ll be promoted up the proverbial food chain. And while Alma (or is it Jack?) is as tough as nails and can pull punches with the best of them, she also has a feminine side — and what makes the book particularly interesting is that she’s bisexual and works both sides of the street, in more ways that one.

If this book hadn’t been written by a woman, I would charge The Best Bad Things as being a bit misogynistic. Alma/Jack gets into a whole bevy of scrapes, and her body becomes the site of great violence. She/he gets bruises from punches pulled on her, she gets stabbed (in the throat no less), and she even gets shot at. The Alma/Jack character is being consistently punished and pummelled, so that’s where the slight misogyny comes in — though I realize that this is a book about a woman entering the rough and tumble business of being in a man’s world, and Carrasco successfully pulls off the trick of making a woman be like a man.

The dialogue is also quick and nimble with more insults bandied about than you would find in your average Marx Brothers film. This is in keeping with the hard-boiled nature of the text. I was reminded of Dashiell Hammett’s stories of the Continental Op — which is apropos because the Op is also a Pinkerton man — and the kind of easy quips that passes through that character’s lips. However, there is a flaw with hard-boiled stories and it is that they can be all style and no substance. While Carrasco has the vernacular down and I suppose you can read between the text to come to all sorts of interpretations about gender, I found that the action and all of the double-crossing to be confusing to really follow. Which is probably the point.

Still, the novel is populated with all sorts of henchmen doing dastardly deeds, and I found it hard to really tell them apart or tell what side they were really on. This could be an asset of the novel — after all, in a book of this sort you want to keep the reader on their toes. However, aside from one character who whittles wood with a knife, it was next to near impossible to really discern who was who and also who was working for who and at what time. However, the novel is fun enough I suppose — if you don’t mind reading about ladies who deserve better getting beaten up and in the way of sharp objects. The fun is in the fact that the Alma/Jack character is as tough as nails, even when he/she is getting the shit kicked out of him/her. She/he really holds her/his own, and refuses to let a little thing like a cracked rib keep her/him down. Alma/Jack is all too eager to get into all sorts of trouble, even with her superiors, and that makes her/him a touch on the unpredictable side.

Overall, I suppose I enjoyed The Best Bad Things to a point. It takes a while before you realize where the book is actually set — the author doesn’t do a very good job at telegraphing things early enough — and one character who is dark-skinned is not described as such until well into the first encounter with the character. I chalk this up to the fact that The Best Bad Things is a debut novel, and such things are a bit of a newbie’s mistake. As Kurt Vonnegut once said, don’t make the reader wait 17 pages to find out an important detail such as setting or a character’s physical trait. But, come to think of it, maybe it’s not a mistake at all, and is meant to keep things off kilter? Still, it would have been nice to have a bit more grounding.

All in all, The Best Bad Things is not a terrible book. It’s not the most sterling thing I’ve read either, but the language is poetic enough and the violence and blood-letting is fun. In fact, fun would be the word I’d use to describe this novel. It’s probably an important volume, too, for raising or elevating the status of women in a frontier world. The book captures the underbelly of West Coast crime before the turn of the twentieth century. The underworld of ships, storage areas, opium dens and more make this a kind of voracious read that will keep you certainly on the edge of your seat. And, for what it tries to do in making women the power brokers is captivating enough. The Best Bad Things is not the best that the genre has to offer, but it stands pretty good on its own. If that’s enough incentive for you, then I would certainly give it a try.

Katrina Carrasco’s The Best Bad Things was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on November 6, 2018.

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Zachary Houle

Zachary Houle

Book critic by night, technical writer by day. Follow me on Twitter @zachary_houle.