Book review: Punk photographer puts noir in Hard Light

Unconventional sleuth Cassandra "Cass" Neary intrigues us further in Elizabeth Hand's latest mystery.

Hard Light by Elizabeth Hand is published by Minotaur Books.
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Among the most unconventional sleuths who populate the mystery genre, Cassandra “Cass” Neary stands out – an alcoholic photographer whose career burnt out more than 30 years ago when she was immersed in the punk rock scene.

Cass is on a perpetual collision course to save herself, finding solace in alcohol, drugs and photography.

She is the kind of person that few people would want in their lives, but author Elizabeth Hand makes it easy to care about this perpetual outsider whose knowledge that she wasted her talents subconsciously dictates her actions.

“I’m the ghost of punk, haunting the 21st century in disintegrating black-and-white, one of those living fossils you read about who usually show up, dead, in a place you never heard of,” she reflects.

In Hard Light, Cass submerges herself in the 1970s music scene and its aftermath when she escapes to grimy North London. Her plan is to meet up with her longtime boyfriend, Quinn, following a disastrous time in Iceland. Quinn is nowhere to be found and the nomadic Cass ends up doing menial errands for a low-level mobster, crashing at decaying apartments and eventually ending up at a dilapidated Cornwall farmhouse.

On one errand, Cass delivers a package to Poppy Teasel, who made a name for herself as a hard-core groupie in the early 1970s before becoming a punk singer with a cult following. Cass finds herself on the periphery of a series of murders that involve film noir, Paleolithic icons and former musicians whose fleeting fame ended decades ago.

Hand makes the plot come together with aplomb, bringing together unlikely links in a believable story.

As a sleuth, the unpredictable Cass shouldn’t work, but her eye as a photographer gives her strength and allows her to see what others may not. She often sees the world in hard light that “gives a sharp edge to everything, throws it all into harsh relief.”

In her third outing since 2012's Available Light, Cass continues to be oddly appealing, teetering on the edge and infinitely intriguing.

Associated Press