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These Women: by Ivy Pochoda

Ivy Pochoda’s These Women seeks to be the literary equivalent of any number of the recent spate of true crime documentaries and podcasts that reveal their respective mysteries piecemeal, while also attempting to inject timely social commentary. In the case of Pochoda’s West Adams in South Los Angeles, it’s the diverse group of women from equally diverse backgrounds and upbringings who find their respective storylines intertwined around the narrative thread of a serial killer preying on minority sex workers. These marginalized individuals, instead of serving as cursory character sketches or mere victims within the broader, more male-dominated narrative surrounding the serial killer in question, make up the literal heart and soul of the story. Their lives and struggles are what gives These Women its emotional heft, drawing readers into the worlds of individual women who, under normal circumstances, would largely be overlooked for one reason or another.

Beginning in 1999 with Feelia, a sex worker who we meet recovering from a horrific attack that has left her with a massive scar where a killer attempted to slit her throat ear to ear, Pochoda begins weaving a narrative tapestry within the West Adams neighborhood that quickly takes the reader 15 years into the future. In 2014, we are introduced to Dorian, a long-grieving mother whose mixed-race daughter, Lecia, was murdered 15 years prior and who now works a fried fish stand in the neighborhood and has made it her unspoken mission to look out for those who make their living on the fringes of society. This includes Juliana who, in 1999, was the charge of Lecia and, as her babysitter walked out of her house onto the streets, the last person to see her alive.

Dorian’s motivation for looking after women like Juliana isn’t simply rooted in a sort of feministic civic-mindedness, but rather the very specific guilt associated with having lost her daughter. And while Lecia was not a prostitute, she still managed to fall victim to a serial killer who, at the time at least, seemed to have been preying primarily on sex workers. It’s here that the first instance of the fine line between perception and reality is addressed, Lecia having ostensibly been not only marginalized, but generalized in that vague sort of way American society tends to label minorities, particularly women. When bodies start appearing on the streets again, murdered in the same fashion as those in 1999, and dead hummingbirds begin showing up at Dorian’s place of work and her home, the true crime element begins kicking into high gear.

Enter Essie, a diminutive, Latina vice cop who begins seeing the parallels between current events and those initially ignored by homicide detectives in 1999 due to the professional nature of the women murdered. Essie’s investigative work eventually brings her into the orbits of Dorian, Juliana and, eventually, Marella and Anneke, a mother and daughter whose respective storylines are alternately maddening and heartbreaking. It’s hard to delve too deeply into the plot without giving away the series of well-paced clues and reveals, suffice to say that Pochoda deftly handles an otherwise tricky narrative that, in lesser hands, could easily come off as overly preachy or heavy-handed.

Broken into sections focusing on each of the main women in the book, These Women fleshes out each character in a way that feels wholly believable and lived-in, lending a depth and breadth to each that, in most contemporary crime narratives, relegates them to the fringes. It’s this latter approach that has caused the serial murders to remain largely unconnected, the police in homicide having concluded that the previous deaths were little more than occupational hazards, despite the obvious parallels and methods used in each of the killings. That it takes an otherwise marginalized female vice cop to finally manage to connect the dots further underscores the book’s theme of those going otherwise unnoticed playing a much larger role in the grand scheme of things than most of society would give them credit for.

Ultimately, These Women manages to be a well-structured mystery with just enough weighty social commentary to make it both an engrossing and timely read. And while the bulk of the events come during the start of the Black Lives Matter movement, they feel no less resonant today, particularly in a year in which those most marginalized by mainstream society have finally begun to have their voices heard on a much larger, national scale. With These Women, Ivy Pochoda has delivered a thoroughly enjoyable mystery novel that manages to be both entertaining and thought-provoking without relying on an overwrought or overly preachy narrative. The book forces you, the reader, to give more notice to the people encountered in our day-to-day lives, fleshing out those otherwise static background players with rich backstories that help illustrate how and why they are who they are while forcing us to reassess our biases and prejudices with regard to those perceived as “other.”

Manages to be a well-structured mystery with just enough weighty social commentary to make it both an engrossing and timely read.
74 %
Haunting character studies

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