Monday, August 29, 2016

They Do It With Mirrors (Jana Blake #2)

They Do It With Mirrors, by Jim Conaway
No month stated, 1977  Belmont Tower Books

The second and final volume of the Jana Blake series is once again courtesy J.C. Conaway, who again brings sleazy ‘70s New York City to life; the guy was so familiar with the seedier areas of the city – and so gifted with presenting a gutter-level view of them – that I’m starting to think that Conaway might’ve been the mysterious author of The Savage Women.

Our heroine doesn’t even appear for the first 46 pages; we open with Stash, a black pimp with movie-star looks who is given to outrageous fashions. These opening pages of They Do It With Mirrors are almost a guide to grungy ‘70s Manhattan, with Stash doing the rounds of the sleazy parts of the city, including a jaunt along 42nd Street which sees him checking out a live sex show where Conaway leaves no gross stone unturned. Stash lives in utter poverty (cockroaches litter his cupboards in another memorable bit of detailing) and runs his stable of whores with an iron fist – actually, make that a sharpened knife. When he catches three of his working girls cheating him on pay, he takes his knife to the scalp of one of them to leave her a permanent reminder not to screw him over again.

The reason Stash takes center stage is because he’s gradually shaping up to be this volume’s villain; Conaway inserts a lot of faux-“API” stuff and fake news columns (most of them an obvious page-filling gambit) about the recent migration of famed blonde goddess film star Chiara Locatelli, who is moving with her movie producer husband and toddler daughter Risa from their native Rome to Manhattan. Stash you see has recently hooked up with a blonde transvestite named Honey (Stash we’re informed has “unusual sexual leanings” so it’s cool with him that Honey’s a dude), who has real boobs but hasn’t yet gotten “the operation” to go full-on woman. But Honey looks identical to Chiara, and Stash slowly (very slowly) is beginning to form an idea to make some big bucks capitlizing on her resemblance to the famous woman.

Meanwhile Jana, when we finally get to her on page 47, is still hanging out with her gay pal Charlie, who has since opened his own boutique and is trying to lose weight. Conaway shows a passing familiarity with the then-underground world of the gays and the transsexuals, so much so that you go “hmmm.” As with all of Conaway’s other novels I’ve yet read, They Do It With Mirrors even takes the time to briefly feature a gay or at least underground musical; this time we’re treated to an all-tranny revue of Grand Hotel, in which Honey plays the Jean Harlow part. But otherwise we get lots of stuff from Charlie’s boutique, how he cuts patterns and gives fashion advice, and it all shows a bit more “research” than you’d expect from the average men’s adventure author – not to make any assumptions, of course.

It’s some unstated time after the previous volume, and Jana hasn’t had a big case since. She’s still trying to hide the fact from her landlord that she secretly lives in her office, which as we’ll recalll is on the same floor as a gay-dominated gym (“hmmm” again) and one floor down from a porn film production company. Jana when we meet her is swimming laps with Charlie, and Conaway shows a complete disintrest in conveying tension; it’s all very much in a long-simmer trash fiction mode as Jana and her GBF shoot the shit and go eat at a health food restaurant. Here again Conaway brings seedy New York to life; indeed he’s almost a regular Len Levinson throughout, sometimes even giving exact locations of his fictitious locales, complete with walking directions.

Jana’s still in a relationship with hunky Gianni, the Italian dude who works in a fruit stand across from her building (and whom she has off-page sex with here – Jana’s sole such scene in the novel), however the hunky cop she was also involved with last time out isn’t mentioned this time. But friends, Jana is a supporting character at best in They Do It With Mirrors. I kid you not. She’s absent from the book more than she’s in it. Jana disappears for long stretches…for example, other than a page-and-a-half cameo, she’s completely absent from pages 78 to 158. That’s eighty pages where our heroine isn’t even seen or mentioned! So it seems clear to me that Conaway wasn’t much invested in this series or his protagonist, and basically went about filling the novel with incidental characters.

So in that regard the true protagonist is Stash, who saunters around various Times Square establisments and has frequent sex with his transvestite “girlfriend,” Honey. There’s also lots of stuff about Honey’s dreams of stardom and her appearances in various off-Broadway plays, as mentioned a recurring staple in Conaway’s work. It’s via Honey that Jana makes that brief cameo between pages 78 and 158, as Honey hires Charlie to design a new gown for “her,” and Jana happens to be in the boutique when Honey stops by to check the designs. But Stash and Honey aren’t the only characters who steal the show from the series protagonist. Conaway also spends a lot of time with Chiara and young Risa; most of the novel is told through their perspectives.

The incident promised on the back cover – the kidnapping of Risa – doesn’t occur until well over a hundred pages in. Stash, at great page length, earlier watched a lame magic show performed by a drunk, older married couple – and Conaway, not getting enough mileage out of this, actually writes the sequence twice, as Stash later takes Honey to see the show, too – and thus Stash hatches a scheme to steal away Risa via magic. Coincidence be damned, the drunk couple has been hired to do magic at Risa’s birthday party, and here the abduction is carried off. One can’t help but feel bad for poor little Risa, who is locked up in Stash’s grungy apartment with only her stuffed monkey to keep her company. Stash, wearing a ski mask, periodically brings her food, but otherwise he just forgets about her for long periods of time.

Chiara and husband receive the ransom note and the cops tell them not to play along, but the Italian couple is frantic. Also, Chiara is frustrated by the slowness of the cops in handling the case, and conveniently remembers an ad she just happened to have seen in the paper recently – an ad for Jana Blake, private eye who only handles cases for women. Thus in the last 30-some pages Jana’s finally on the job.

And here’s the unique skill she brings: when Chiara shows Jana around her apartment, Jana notices the dumbwaiter and figures that’s how the kidnappers abducted Risa. Jana’s theory is confirmed when she finds a scuff mark inside the dumbwaiter, no doubt left by a shoe – Risa’s shoe. She shrugs off Chiara’s comment that the cops already searched the place, scoffing that the cops wouldn’t know a scuff mark when they saw one, as none of them have likely ever scrubbed a floor! And that’s it, friends, Jana’s sole lead here is provided via her sexism.

Even here there’s no action or suspense. Jana just goes around the grungier areas of Manhattan asking one-off characters about a truck, Jana haviing learned from a neigbor of the Locatellis that a mysterious truck was seen outside the building before the little girl disappeared. This goes on and on, Jana calling people, visiting them, finding out they’ve sold the truck, and then moving on to the new owner.

Like the previous volume, you can forget all about that cover image of an ass-kicking Jana toting a pistol. The only “weapon” she uses here is a telephone, and she doesn’t get in a single fight. In fact Stash and Honey are chased by the cops while Jana instead saves poor Risa, who is in danger of being burned alive in a fire accidentally started in Stash’s apartment, Honey having dropped a smoking cigarette when she left with Stash to collect the ransom.

As for Stash and Honey, neither are killed – the cops chase them through the city and shoot Stash in the arm, while Honey meanwhile freaks out in a heroin trip. We’re informed via another of those faux-API news bulletins that the two have been arrested, along with the other accomplices. And this is how They Do It With Mirrors ends, with Conaway, out of space due to padding, not even bringing us back into Jana’s world long enough to say goodbye. It’s debatable if he intended another volume, but I’m betting not – it’s clear from this volume that he had lost all interest in the character, and his disinterest is contagious.

While this was it for Jana Blake, I have more Conaway books on tap…including most promisingly another two-volume series he wrote in the ‘70s about a female private eye: Meet Nookie and Get Nookie, which were published by Manor Books under the pseudonym “Ross Webb.” Oh, and I’ve since found out here that Conaway was a WVU graduate (class of ’57), meaning like myself he might’ve grown up in West “the middle of nowhere” Virginia. I’d suspected this for a while, mostly due to the WV setting of The Deadly Spring.

1 comment:

Tom Johnson said...

Another nice review. The first novel didn't impress me enough to buy the second volume, and I had high hopes for the first one.