Woman With a Blue Pencil (book)
Creators: Gordon McAlpine
Book cover. Courtesy of Seventh Street Books
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Novel about a pulp mystery novel written by a young Nisei as World War II breaks out, his interactions with a sometimes overzealous editor, and his protest in the form of an unpublished manuscript centering on the Nisei private detective he was forced to remove from the novel.
As the novel begins, we are told that a lockbox was found in an old home in Garden Grove, California. Inside are three items: a pulp novel titled The Orchid and the Secret Agent by William Thorne, published in 1945; letters between the book's author, Takumi Sato, and editor Maxine Wakefield of Metropolitan Modern Mysteries spanning 1941 to 1944; and a handwritten manuscript on "GI-issue writing paper" by Sato titled "The Revised." Woman With a Blue Pencil consists of the chapters of "The Revised" intercut with excerpts from The Orchid and the Secret Agent and letters from Wakefield commenting on the manuscript that would become The Orchid and the Secret Agent as Sato is writing it. Beginning as a novel about a Nisei art historian who quits his job to investigate the murder of his wife, the attack on Pearl Harbor leads Wakefield to suggest changing the protagonist to a non-Japanese American Asian American who battles a Japanese spy ring in the Los Angeles. She guides Sato into writing a pulp novel with whose protagonist is Korean American agent named Jimmy Park who investigates a brutal spy ring led by a beautiful Japanese American woman known as the "Orchid." Using a mix of flattery and coercion, Wakefield's guidance leads to a novel filled with stereotypes and outlandish plotting. Her letters also reveal the circumstances of Sato and his family, they are forcibly removed from their home, and sent to Manzanar , where Sato eventually volunteers for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team . Written as a reaction to his experience with The Orchid , Sato's "The Revised" imagines what happens to his Nisei protagonist, Sam Sumida, when he is cut out of the novel, with the conceit that he continues to live on, though in a world that no longer knows of his existence. He eventually runs into another character cut from The Orchid , a racist white policeman, and The Revised largely centers on their interactions, which eventually intersect with the climax of The Orchid .
Author Gordon McAlpine (1959– ) published five novels, a non-fiction book, and a trilogy for young readers. Born in Lynwood, California, McAlpine has an MFA from the University of California, Irvine and is the former chair of the creative writing MFA program at Chapman University. His 2013 novel Hammett Unwritten uses a similar device of envisioning characters—in this case from Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon —having lives outside the context of the novel in which they were born. in Woman With a Blue Pencil , Sam Sumida watches the movie version of The Maltese Falcon when the world as he knows it disappears from his life.
Woman With a Blue Pencil received largely positive reviews and was nominated for a 2016 Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original.
Might also like: Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire by David Mura; Fox Drum Bebop by Gene Oishi; The Issei Prisoners of the San Pedro Internment Center by Stanley Kanzaki
|Awards||Nominated, Edgar Award, Mystery Writers of America, Best Paperback Original, 2016|
Gaughan, Thomas. Booklist , Oct. 1, 2015, 30. ["McAlpine has skillfully melded the mood of rage at Japanese treachery and bits of Hammett-era noir with the sensibilities of metafiction and postmodernism into a truly original crime novel."]
Publishers Weekly , Sept. 28, 2015, 68. ["McAlpine's greatest accomplishment is that the book works both as a conventional mystery story and as a deconstruction of the genre's ideology; whichever strand readers latch onto, the parallel stories pack a brutal punch."]