by Mary Frisbee
Published North American Review Press, 2018
Mary Frisbee’s novel, Black Fin, inaugural winner of North American Review Press’s new Gas Station Pulp fiction contest, is a book that pays homage to its own crime noir tradition while also moving forward to modernize the pulp genre. In her coastal Oregon town, twenty-seven-year-old tech specialist Olive Wiley (a name that is somewhat on the nose) is the last person anyone expects to be a con artist and blackmailer. However, Olive’s ability to memorize passwords, access private information, and make complex connections in her head has made her a wealthy woman. It is also the skill set she will rely on to protect herself and a young girl named Sarah from people who mean to kill them.
We meet Olive at the end of her rope. She is critically ill and has chosen her favorite sea cave as the perfect place to commit suicide. When two shadowy figures in firefighting gear drag a dead woman and her daughter into the cave, Olive must abandon her plans and rely on her wit and instinct to keep the girl safe. Sarah, as Olive will soon find out, has selective mutism, a trauma response to seeing her mother murdered. However, this doesn't prevent Olive and Sarah from communicating in meaningful ways, and Frisbee wisely takes care not to allow Sarah to become an afterthought despite her lack of dialogue.
Frisbee relies on spare prose to create a heightened sense of suspense as the unlikely pair travel down the Oregon coast, holing up in abandoned summer homes and cheap motels, remaining one step ahead of the killers. The Oregon setting, with its black basalt cliff walls and unforgiving Pacific tide, does a lot to ground the story and keep things fresh while Olive and Sarah elude danger: “Towering wooded cliffs rise up on our left, plummeting to our right to the surf below... I concentrate on the road and stay at the speed limit, drawing no attention. Firefighter X will return.” The lengths they go to avoid detection are smart and convincing, there are plenty of near misses that leave you holding your breath.
Frisbee is at her best when exploring the complicated relationships between her main characters (though even the criminals exceed themselves to be interesting as they come into focus during the novel’s final act). While the book references noir classics like Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard, it also feels at home among out-of-genre narratives like Shane and Casablanca—stories where a hero with a checkered past finds redemption through selflessness and sacrifice. Though Olive remains unapologetic about her criminal history, her wrongdoing is tempered by revelations about her own abusive upbringing and the lengths she’s gone to survive. As she puts young Sarah’s well-being ahead of her own, we get the sense that this is possibly the first time Olive has ever considered her impact on others: “I hope she will not inherit my larcenous streak... I yearn for her to remember me with tenderness and forgiveness, if not love.”
Eventually, the plot evolves into a “howdunnit” involving the theft of a rare Fabergé egg. It’s during these moments that the narrative veers most sharply away from gritty realism, focusing on the lineage of the Russian bauble instead of the compelling ersatz mother-daughter bond that Olive and Sarah have formed. Frisbee’s background in jewelry fabrication, and her detailed research, make this plot twist feel plausible if not necessary.
The book ends with a dramatic love-it-or-hate-it scene that may ruffle the feathers of some readers who seek traditional closure, but it is an ending that feels inevitable and necessary. It also contains some of Frisbee’s best writing as it reaches for and attains another register in its poignant final moments.
Dark and tender, Black Fin should appeal to lovers of noir, though not exclusively. There is a lot of heart to this story. Frisbee’s world may be full of opportunism and violence, but it’s also a place where memorable antiheroes like Olive Wiley and resilient children like Sarah Atkinson find each other, and in doing so find a way to survive the rising waters around them.
Black Fin is available for pre-order now at the link below.