Wednesday, February 16, 2011

detectives don't wear seatbelts

Article first published as Book Review: Detectives Don't Wear Seat Belts: True Adventures of a Female P.I. by Cici McNair on Blogcritics.

Cici McNair's Detectives Don't Wear Seatbelts is a fun and fast read. You careen along with the author through her exotic travels and attempts to become a female private eye in a profession mainly inhabited and ruled by men. When I think of a detective it's the brilliant yet introspective Sherlock Holmes, or the laconic hero of a noir classic like Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep, or the fast-talking private eye who won't let anyone stop him from getting to the truth about who killed his partner—like Bogie again in The Maltese Falcon. So it's refreshing to learn how a woman was able to join the ranks of this traditionally masculine profession. McNair's writing fits the fast-talker detective profile to a T. She decides one day to become a detective and sets off full-steam, without a clue, but with energy and desire to spare.

She is definitely fearless, whether it's stepping off a plane countless times in some remote location, or stepping off a creepy dark elevator in a New York counterfeit handbag factory, wearing a wire and with a hidden camera, to spy on the goings-on. But even with all her rapid-fire anecdotes we never fully understand why she has gone on her latest journey or taken on yet another part-time job. Is it because she couldn't sit still for long? Or is she running from her dark family secrets?

As she becomes a crack investigator, McNair realizes that she loves hanging out with the boys and sketches their colorful personalities, while never resorting to caricature. And that's no mean feat, as some of the detectives seem to court caricature, or at least have modeled themselves after Bugs Bunny's Bugs and Thugs version of a tough-talking private eye, "Bugs Bunny, Private Eyeball—Thugs Thwarted, Arsonists Arrested, Bandits Booked, Forgers Found, Counterfeiters Caught, and Chiselers Chiseled."

I think it's because she has a great affection for her colleagues, and an almost photographic memory of spending time with them, even after working with some for just a few short months. While I was reading, I tried to remember all the interesting and unusual folks I have crossed paths with in short-term jobs I've held over the years. It's not that easy. McNair not only has a great memory, but also must feel a duty to do everyone justice. She does and she's also pretty funny while she's doing it.

McNair talks about her childhood and abusive, distant father, but somehow leaves a mystery in the air—did he really try to murder her mother and her? What about her other siblings? She has quite a few and they don't seem to have much of a part in her life or have experienced the same upbringing and issues—she does mention briefly that one brother committed suicide. She seems devoted to her octogenarian mother, but maintains her distance from her and her Mississippi roots.

She is observant and diligent when it comes to detecting. Why does she avoid the obvious hints from a local Mississipi private eye that investigating her father's life might help answer many of her questions and put some of her issues to rest? McNair's whirlwind travels around the world, multiple relationships, and avoidance of marriage seem to always be tied back to the one big relationship in her life—her parents' marriage. That's a book I would have liked to read—her in-depth investigation of her parents' past. It might be intrusive, even creepy, to investigate one's family, but wouldn't a true detective also find it irresistible?

McNair does bring up the emotional debris that comes with taking a peek into others' lives. Although her investigating does seem to help many—she reunites lost relatives, helps innocent and impoverished people avoid jail—she doesn't always get to see how their story ends. She may produce all the facts that a person needs to contact their lost relative, but she has to hand over the paperwork and leave before the final scene is played. Did the client eventually contact their missing family member? McNair usually never finds out.

Detectives Don't Wear Seatbelts is a memoir, but it also reads as a bit of a mystery. For all of its author's desire to take us along on her breakneck pace through her life, the reader never gets to go too far below the surface. Maybe that's how McNair wants it. Like the boss of the detective agency who she never really gets to know with the assortment of different hats for undercover work—cowboy, baseball, fedora, etc.—it probably isn't in a born detective's nature to want to reveal too much of themselves. They are in the business of staying in the shadows and turning up facts about others.



Book #9 in reading challenge Cannonball Read 3, sponsored by Pajiba

Full disclosure: This book was sent to me to review. I'm very thankful to be considered a critic of books, movies and other pop culture and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.

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