Kristen Lepionka painted on my radar with a column she wrote for CrimeReads, about women protagonists in crime fiction – more to the point, about queer women. Woman PI’s and cops aren’t the novelty they were forty years back, when Grafton and Sara Paretsky debuted, and the hard-boiled was getting legs with Tami Hoag and Patsy Cornwell, but Lepionka had something bigger in her sights: an increasing presence of women of color, and the fact that a good number of them are no longer straight.
It’s been a while since Joseph Hansen premiered his Dave Brandstetter books, and back then it seemed like Hansen had staked a claim on barren ground. At least, not too many other people followed his lead. Little by little, though, the goalposts have moved. Something similar happened in the science fiction community. Ursula Le Guin, James Tiptree, and Anne McCaffrey blew a hole in the prevailing gender mythology, along with Chip Delany, and the whole Doc Savage/Tarzan heroic construct came tumbling down.
This, naturally, led me to start reading Kristen Lepionka’s own mysteries. The Last Place You Look came out in 2017, What You Want to See a year later, The Stories You Tell the year after that, and Once You Go This Far in 2020. Cozy, they ain’t. They’re tough, and tough-minded. Roxane Weary, a dead cop’s daughter, has a private license and a buttload of attitude. She’s in fact something of a trainwreck. Her issues aren’t incidental, either. The stories are as much about how she navigates the world as they are about the cases she pursues. The tangles are both personal and professional. And there’s a lot of sex.
You may think you’ve visited this side of town before, but Roxane makes it unnervingly intimate. Her anger and her self-awareness are equally claustrophobic. It’s a burden. But it gives her an edge. She don’t know quit; she just keeps coming. This isn’t your Travis McGee knight in tarnished armor convention, either. Roxane keeps pushing because she’s basically so pissed off at her own life, and the way things shake out for people, that she won’t take no for an answer.
I’m making her sound unsympathetic, which isn’t true at all. Her strength is her transparency, and Roxane’s voice invites confidences – even if you’re not sure exactly how confident you are in her, you’re still pulling for her. The plots are dense, but there’s also a very specific density to Roxane’s approach to the canvas, her family, her unresolved past, the fabric of her community, hanging by a thread. I might not be giving you the flavor. The books have a muscular rhythm, and the asides are snappy and acerbic. There’s an underlying tension between what Roxane hears and observes, and what’s left unspoken. There are laugh-out-loud moments, and scary ones, too. I simply find myself enormously charmed. I really like this girl.
This is, I guess, the key. That you can take a complicated person, a character that’s not generic, somebody who doesn’t always make the right choices, and who sometimes can’t even get out of her own way, and reveal her as authentic, but still make her the fulcrum of a credible mystery. Roxane’s a good detective, and she comes by it honestly. She seems real to me. She’s not a collection of tics, or a literary device. That's a departure.