Review: Dope by Sara Gran

Book info:
Genre: crime story noir/thriller
Target audience: adults
Form: pdf
1950s, New York City, light ages before the famous ‘no tolerance’ policy of Mayor Giuliani. Josephine Flannigan, 36,  tries to make her living as a former heroin addict. She is a skilled con artist, a shrewd shoplifter and, generally, whatever anybody wants her to be providing they pay cash. She doesn’t do drugs and she doesn’t sell herself, anything else is negotiable. She must be clever and flexible – in such a seedy, dangerous, crime-ridden city she is lucky she’s survived to her third decade at all. As she hasn’t been shooting up for two years she looks ‘great’, with shiny hair, clearer complexion and a more rounded figure. Still paying her rent every single month is a challenge – she has no education and no steady position so money is tight; occasional odd jobs (like stealing a ring at Tiffany for breakfast ;p ) are hardly very profitable, fences never pay you much – the competition is too fierce.
Fortunately one of her ‘friends’ recommends Joe’s skills to the Nelsons, a respectable suburban couple. Their eighteen-year old daughter, Nadine, has abruptly disappeared with a wrong kind of boyfriend. Josephine recognized him instantly with a shudder as a ruthless pimp and a drug dealer called Jerry McFall. As Nadine has been a drug fiend for some time now (that’s why she dropped out of Barnard College) it seems Joey is the best person to find her, far better than any police officer of a PI – after all she knows that milieu like the back of her hand. What’s more the anxious parents offer her $1,000 upfront and then another thousand if she brings Nadine home in one piece. A sweet deal and easy buck? Not really.
Josephine embarks on an odyssey through New York’s underworld which is a bit like a sentimental but a very dangerous journey to her – she reconnects with many of her old friends and must constantly fight off the temptation to return to drugs. After a while she starts to care about the absent girl in spite of herself, maybe because the girl is as vulnerable as herself and maybe because Joe misses her younger sister, Shelley. Shelley, now a popular ads model and a budding actress, managed to make a stunning career considering her background, mainly because of Joe’s devotion and support; however, she doesn’t need the older sister anymore and she is even ashamed of her. Let’s face it, she aspires to be upper class and a former prostitute and drug addict of a sister not exactly helps that image. Business is business.
 Will Josephine be able to find Nadine on time to prevent the worst? Will the money be worth her efforts? Or maybe it is not such a great chance at all and somebody is simply framing her for murder? You know that old saying: if something looks or sounds too good it is most likely too good to be true…
What I liked:
There is nothing romanticized about the story you get in this novel and its heroine, mauled by her sad experience. The slums are not just providing a colourful background – they are described with gritty vividness, really the worst places to visit, full of brutal, despairing, desolate people who see no end of their problems and have no future. Josephine is not a princess who managed to come unscathed from hell, quite the opposite in fact; as the narrator she honestly admits from the beginning that she has been leading horrible life since her childhood with alcoholic, unstable mother and a younger sister to feed and protect from the worst.
Raised rough in Hell’s Kitchen, Josephine never expected much from life. She has scraped by, pulling small cons, shoplifting, whoring when times were particularly bad— then doing just about anything to get enough for her next fix. Still she never feels sorry for herself and the way she treats her sister, now apparently doing much better than poor Joe has ever done, is very touching. Almost as touching as Joe’s heroic efforts to find a rich brat from a ‘good’ house even when it is obvious nobody really cares what’s happened to Nadine. Making Josephine persevere the author showed that her heroine really deserved better than being labeled ‘white trash’. It is even more impressing that at first Joe admits her annoyance at Nadine, a girl who had every advantage like a loving family and money, and managed to screw up her life royally just for fun. She says chillingly:
She wanted her walk on the wild side and now she was getting it. So let her see what The Life was like. Let her lose her looks from getting hit in the face too many times. Let her lose a few teeth and all of her pride and all her charm school manners. Her college education wouldn’t do her any good out here.”
 It really takes a lot of backbone and character integrity to keep looking for and helping somebody you’ve envied so much; such qualities made Joey a compelling character and it was really shown, not told.
Now about the style. Sara Gran writes with a lot of reserve which only adds force to her narration. There are no infodumps or boring fragments in this novel – with every new person Josephine encounters on her path there is the promise of a whole new interesting story just waiting to be told to a willing listener. There are no redundant secondary characters either. The baddie is really bad – a female boxer and a pimp plus a crooked drug dealer, is there anything better for your negative character…I mean anything worse? There is another baddie, as ugly as Jerry but I can say no more, it would be a major spoiler.
What I didn’t like:
The ending. I wanted a HEA for Josephine very badly but, unfortunately, the author decided otherwise – she  suggested a much more real but pretty painful outcome. Still a suggestion is not a fact, right? I would love to read a sequel in which Joey has a bit more luck and finds her much-deserved stability, maybe even happiness.
Final verdict:
One of better noir mystery novels I’ve read this year with a funny, intelligent heroine and interesting settings. Still it is definitely not a novel for somebody who likes happy endings – be warned, the final several pages are pretty heart-rending in a dark, brutal way.
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