A review of Face of the Enemy by Joanne Dobson and Beverle Graves Myers

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

Face of the Enemy
by Joanne Dobson and Beverle Graves Myers
Scottsdale, Poisoned Pen Press
2012, $14,95 US, ISBN 9781-464-2003-28,

Face of the Enemy is the first of a mystery series set in New York City during World War II. The co-authors, Joanne Dobson and Beverle Graves Myers, have each written award winning mystery series, but Face of the Enemy is their first collaboration.

The novel opens in late November, 1941 (shortly before Pearl Harbor) as Robert Oakley, an elderly Asian History professor, and his younger wife, artist Makaso Fumi, are getting dressed for the opening of her show at the Shelton Gallery on 57th Street. Oakley, who is feeling ill, shrugs off his symptoms to support his beautiful wife on her special night. Then, at the opening, a socialite on the arm of an America Firster throws wine on one of Makaso’s paintings and calls it “Jap crap.” Oakley collapses.

Makaso’s troubles worsen. Shelton, the gallery owner, closes her exhibition. Her husband becomes seriously ill with pneumonia. Then she is arrested in an FBI sweep of prominent Japanese residents. When Shelton’s body is found in the gallery, she is suspected of murdering him. Louise Hunter, the private nurse caring for Robert Oakley, is horrified at Makaso’s arrest and resolves to try to help her get free. Meanwhile, Lieutenant McKenna of the New York Police Department investigates Shelton’s murder. Both Louise and McKenna are hampered by an opportunistic journalist and an ambitious FBI agent.

A subplot involves the landlady who runs the boarding house where Louise lives. Helda Schroeder’s deserting husband, a Nazi sympathizer, reappears, putting her and their son at risk.

The novel is presented in the third person from multiple points of view. The seven viewpoint characters, each having several chapters from his or her perspective, are Robert Oakley, Makaso Fumi, Louise Hunter, journalist Cabby Ward, Lieutenant McKenna, Helda Schroeder, and Howie Schroeder, her fourteen year old son.

Face of the Enemy is not a Sue Grafton or Susan Isaacs type of mystery in which reader and detective figure walk hand-in-hand through the story, with the reader enjoying the detective figure’s personality while uncovering the facts. In Dobson and Myers’ novel, the reader has difficulty bonding with any of the point-of-view characters because, before we get to know them, they’re pulled off stage and a newcomer takes over. Maybe the authors chose this structure for reasons of pace and reader interest, but it didn’t work for me. Robert Oakley’s warmth and humanity are demonstrated by his willingness to risk his health to attend his wife’s opening night, but his illness relegates him to a back seat in the story. Makaso, the character on whom the entire plot is based, is inscrutable rather than endearing. Intellectually, one sympathizes with her plight, but emotionally, it’s hard to get involved with her, especially as she is off stage (behind bars) for most of the novel.

Much of the novel is presented from the viewpoints of Louise Hunter, Oakley’s nurse, and Cabby Ward, the ambitious journalist. Neither fully conveys the experience of being a young career woman in New York in 1941 because the emphasis is on their investigations, not their personalities or backgrounds. Eventually we are given some rounding-out information – Louise’s broken heart, Cabby’s drunken dad – but not till the middle of the novel.

Parts of the novel seem too contrived. It seems unlikely that Louise and Cabby, room-mates at Mrs. Schroeder’s, would rarely talk and, consequently, only belatedly discover the connection between the cases they are working on, but their lack of communication serves the plot. Traumatized Makaso becomes withdrawn and uncommunicative in prison but returns to normal surprisingly fast when brought to her husband’s bedside. The climaxes of both the main plot and the subplot are melodramatic.

The New York City setting is not used to full advantage. Scenes set in Schraffts and the Stork Club, for instance, could just as easily have taken place elsewhere. A minor character speaks of seeing Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club, but we readers never get to go there and see him perform. Perhaps I’m spoiled, with too high expectations, because so many creative artists, from Thomas Wolfe to Woody Allen, have already brilliantly evoked New York.

Though it’s an achievement for two authors to juggle seven viewpoint characters and a host of secondary ones, to me, less is more. It seems to me that the best novels are the products of just one artistic vision and creative imagination.

About the reviewer: Ruth Latta is the author of the Delia Cornford mystery series (baico@bellnet.ca) Her most recent novel, a mystery-thriller, is The Old Love and the New Love (Ottawa, Baico, 2012.)