Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Alternate Sides by Marissa Piesman

published 1995










Nina had worn a pair of wide black velvet pants and a silk jacket that was meant to be sort of flashy. But she hadn’t achieved the desired effect. The jacket was the colour of Nina’s hair (or, even worse, Nina’s hair five years from now). Nina had thought it understated and sophisticated at its point of purchase, but now it reminded her of something a Shaker might wear. She had tried to tart it up by wearing a black lace camisole under it, but the neckline of the jacket was cut higher than she remembered so a mere inch of lace showed, not enough to reverse the Shaker effect. Her shoes were as high-heeled and provocative as Nina could manage, which meant they came from the Nine West Spa Collection.



observations: Marissa Piesman wrote a handful of leisurely mysteries in the 1990s, and although you don’t hear about them much, I’m a big fan: 
I'm hoping this blogpost might flush out some other readers. They give a terrific picture of New York at the time, and of a certain kind of life there - heroine Nina is a lawyer living in a tiny apartment, looking for Mr Right in a slapdash manner, visiting her mother and her sister.

She runs across various crimes and does a bit of light investigating. She isn’t Googling the answers, mobile phones are a rarity, people have beepers. And there’s still a lot to complain about in New York.

She watches Seinfeld, but the whole thing reminded me of Friends, and has a nicely grunge-y feel. Nina is hilarious and spot-on accurate about clothes: the TV series of Sex and the City 
 (see here for comparison with the book) was soon to be launched on an unsuspecting world, but I think the passage above is much more true-to-life for most women describing how they put an outfit together. Another of Nina’s great perceptions: 
Most people had a peak year that they carried around with them for the rest of their lives. Certain details gave it away: the old ladies with the henna-ed Rita Hayworth hairdos, the Elvis clones still patting their graying pompadours, the food co-op members clinging dearly to their threadbare flannel shirts.
- meanwhile her mother is grateful for the invention of tunic tops to cover her rear end.

I was delighted to find mention of a credenza – I read a lot of American mysteries in the 90s, and they all featured credenzas, and I had trouble finding out what they were. Like Nina, I couldn’t Google it in those days…

Honestly, I could read about Nina all day – I laughed out loud at the scene where she and her boyfriend have been interviewing a vital witness, a prostitute, and Jonathan is anxious to compare notes on her vital evidence. Nina answers him:
‘First of all, do you think she spells her name KRISTEN or I-N?’ Jonathan looked at Nina as if she were crazy.
-- an increasingly brilliant man/woman conversation ensues.

Marissa Piesman seems to have given up writing crime stories – apparently because she has a serious proper job of her own (possibly something similar to Nina’s…). And that’s a shame – I’d love to read about Nina 20 years down the line.

The pictures are from a fashion magazine of the 90s – the look she describes really was a popular choice then.

14 comments:

  1. I see a new blog here... Credenzas in Books? Hmmm. It might be a bit narrow, I suppose.

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    1. If blogs had been invented in the early 1990s I would have been strongly tempted - it was weird the way credenzas always turned up. If we were to widen the terms of reference to 'Furniture in Books' then I could have included davenports as well, which also seem to turn up a lot - the word means a different item of furniture in England and North America, leading to some sentences that read oddly to foreign eyes.

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  2. Never heard of this author, but from your intro she's a bit under most people's radar. I'll have to leave them for you - have I mentioned I have too many books lately?

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    1. Yes, I think she can count as one of the authors I am reading for you....

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  3. Moira - Oh, this sounds like as much a 'slice of life' of the times as anything else. And it's odd; I thought of Friends when I was reading your post. Sounds like these are worth reading for setting and atmosphere perhaps more than for the actual mysteries. Interesting!

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    1. Yes, well put: I think I just enjoy reading about Nina's life. The crime plot is secondary.

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  4. I have not read this author, but I do have the first book in the series. According to my book catalog, I have had it since 2006 and got it at the big book sale. I suppose I should read it. I think I first read about the series in a list of books about Jewish protagonists. I just found the list and now I want to get back to it. Just not enough time.

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    1. I think I came across her with one of the Felony and Mayhem reprints, and liked them so much I'm working my way through all of them. They're not at all fast-paced, or hard-boiled, but they're not cozy or chick-lit either - they just had their own pace, and place...

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  5. These books sounds like they're up my alley, but as I read summaries of the plots online at Fantastic Fiction, I think I did read a couple of them years ago. However, I think I'll try to read some of them anyway. New York humor is my speed.

    And I do like the suits above, the hair styles and the make-up. Some women in New York still maintain that look.

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    1. I think I could easily read these books again, as it is their setting, characters and dialogue I enjoy so much. I hope you enjoy them if you do re-read.

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  6. I loved the character of Nina and the books. She was hysterical and definitely a Jewish young woman of NYC in the 90s! I'd love to read more of that series.

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    1. Oh great to find another fan! I loved the books, and the character too, it's a pity there weren't more of them. I don't know why the author stopped.

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  7. I miss this series, as well. I really liked it, even as I was aware while reading that it was mostly digression and commentary. But it was INTERESTING commentary and from a perspective I do not live (I'm solidly suburban from the Dallas suburbs and influenced by coastal California--not New Yorky at all.) Here's why I think she stopped writing--the books did not bring in enough money to make the suffering worthwhile. You work and WORK on the books and polish and revise and refine them, and then the editor comes back with a boatload of "suggestions" that you deal with, and then there is more revision and proofing, and then the book comes out and IT DOESN'T SELL, even though it is FAR BETTER than the crap it competes with. People do not seem to know the difference between fine prose and crap, nor do they care. Maybe her editor left or retired, and she said, "That's it." Or maybe she made up a pseudonym and is writing other stuff. I understand. As an author (the mysteries and chick lit by Denise Weeks and the YA/fantasy-adventure by Shalanna Collins), I often wonder if my barbaric yawp makes any difference. But we beat on, boats against the current, heading for that elusive green light. . . .

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    1. Thanks Shalanna, I did enjoy your very-much-to-the-point rant. It must be soul-destroying: not just the lack of big sales, but the very obvious sight of much inferior books being picked up and made popular and successful.

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