SEPTEMBER 11, 2020
PICKING UP Michael Elias’s new novel, You Can Go Home Now, I immediately saw I was in for a ride. One of the two epigraphs is from Frazey Ford, the British Columbian firebrand, culled from her savage breakup anthem, “Done”:
I was taking every hit from you
You drive-by shooting son of a bitch
I’m done. Oh whoa, I’m done.
The excerpt goes on but does not follow sequentially from Ford’s lyric. The lines have been culled, a clue to what Elias is about. An author paying attention to his craft, the world in detail and its relevance.
A second epigraph (it precedes Ford’s) is from Shakespeare, Henry VI, and is concerned with grief and revenge. The necessity of the latter to replace the former for a healthy mind. Indeed.
We find ourselves in turbulent times. There are most certainly no easy solutions. Elias’s novel, a riveting psychological thriller, has a laudable agenda. In the midst of the chaotic mayhem of societal and political turmoil that engulfs us, there are those able to illuminate through the gloom, serve up and illustrate all the consummate lies and misinterpretations. Michael Elias, thankfully, is one of those enlightened souls. A guiding light through the doom. We should be grateful for his insight, for his contemplation, for his wrestling match with morality. For a writer’s need to illustrate and communicate.
It could not have been an easy choice in these charged times for a white male writer to undertake to write from a female point of view when readers and everybody else on the streets and in their dens and living rooms have had their fill up to their gullets of white male voices. It was a bold decision on his part, and Elias has pulled it off. Here is an author working to great effect.
The voice of his protagonist is immediate, irreverent, on point, and most assuredly a fully developed, engaging, sardonic entity unto itself. You Can Go Home Now is a narrative with muscle, focusing on abuse, humiliation, retribution, revenge. For those of us who love thrillers, who love voice, atmosphere, psychological wrestling matches, Elias delivers. His novel is engaging, calculating, to the point. As might be expected by an author with Elias’s impressive résumé, You Can Go Home Now is masterfully plotted, astutely conceived.
Our narrator, Nina Karim, is a police detective. She works for the fictitious Long Island City Police Department. She is competent, serious, aware, observant, talented. She is also in the police department for one singular reason — a reason she does not share with her fellows. Revenge.
Her father, a doctor with a rural practice and no time for himself or his young family, decided to change his specialty to OB-GYN in order to have more time with them. He sold his practice and took a job with Planned Parenthood in order “to experience a normal life.” As a consequence of that decision, he was murdered, shot dead through the kitchen window of the family home. “I was sixteen. My brother, Sammy, was nine.” Brother and sister were both seated at the kitchen table, steps away from their dad at the sink. The assassination decimated the family. “Like all murders, the bullet that ended my father’s life changed ours forever,” Nina tells us.
As much as Nina suffered, Sammy suffered more from excruciating mental health issues. Two years later, aged 11, Sammy stepped in front of an oncoming cement truck whose driver did not see him until it was too late. Her “mother survived Sammy’s death, but not by much. Her heart stopped silently in her sleep, halted by grief and the belief that her love had failed her sweet Sammy.”
Beside herself with grief, blind rage, and impotence, Nina meets a retired cop who works motel security. This man who had befriended Nina, taught her chess, and become a mentor of sorts, tells her the only way she was ever going to get to the bottom of her father’s murder is by becoming a cop herself. Only as a police detective would she have access to files and records nationwide, the only feasible way to root out and find the “cowardly bastard” who committed the crime against her father.
And that’s exactly what Nina does, never forgetting, always seeking to fulfill her dreams of vengeance. Her father in his role at Planned Parenthood had made the “death wish list” of the Army of God, a real-world anti-abortion group linked to violent extremists. Therein, no doubt, lies the murderer. Nina names the names of the victims of this misguided cult: “David Gunn, John Britton, George Tiller, and Barnett Stepian were doctors who provided legal medical procedures to women and were murdered for doing so.”
Nina hasn’t told anyone on the force who she really is, why she’s there, what she means to do. To her colleagues, particularly her commanding officer, Chief of detectives and Lieutenant Lily Hagen, Karim’s inspiration could be someone like Angie Dickinson, star of the 1970s popular television series Police Woman. Not so. That isn’t to say Karim isn’t a cop through and through: she is a person excellent in her policework. But the undercurrent theme of her daily existence is a quest to find her father’s killer, avenge poor Sammy, whom she cared for, loved but could never help: “The death of someone you love, for me, doesn’t get better. The only thing you learn to do is navigate. In the beginning, you just think you are going to drown. That’s the only way I can describe it. There is a change, but it doesn’t get better.”
Karim is a metropolitan police detective, employed in a self-described never-ending battle against domestic violence, restraining orders, and revenge. The warm, fuzzy part of her has long ago been cauterized. Her heart has been broken, her spirit brutalized. Her self-deprecating wit is her salvation, making her relatively functional in the aftermath of the persistent tragedy that is her life. “I don’t wear makeup. I have serious interest in a man, Bobby Booth (Bobby B), the one I sleep with when our busy schedules allow — mine as a cop, his as a loan shark.” Once Bobby, himself a police academy dropout, called her “a revenge-seeking bitch of mayhem.” Nina did not take the assessment from her lover lightly. She demanded an apology from him. “But just for the bitch part; the rest is accurate.”
One day, an ex-police officer with a history of domestic violence is reported missing by his parents. His wife is also missing. The ex-officer eventually shows up dead, and his mother insists her son’s wife is his murderer.
It is possible I may agree with her, for sometimes when evil bitch wives who have been slapped, punched, thrown down flights of stairs while hearing their children scream in panic (if it’s the first time they’ve seen Daddy beat on Mommy) or watch in sullen silence, yes, sometimes those evil bitches do kill their husbands.
In the course of her investigation, two cold cases fitting the same MO — abusive spouses murdered — land on her desk, the surviving victims of their abuse both with airtight alibis. There is a common denominator with all three crimes, however: Artemis, a hidden sanctuary for battered women. Eventually, Karim, ingeniously battered and bruised, will go undercover at Artemis, using her boyfriend Bobby B to stand in for an abusive tormentor.
You Can Go Home Now can serve as a primer for plausible plotting, including clever, offbeat asides and subplots scrupulously woven through the narrative to keep the story compelling. “That’s the thing about murder. You just don’t kill one person; you spread death in little ripples like a pebble tossed in a pond.”
Elias proves himself equally at ease in the inner workings of a big-city police department and a 31-year-old woman’s introspective mind. “I revisit murders of women, most of them killed by their husbands, lover, and in a few cases, bar hookups. Apart from the latter, they all had restraining orders on the men who killed them. Jesus.”
Nina goes undercover at Artemis, masquerading as Lucy, a victim of domestic abuse, where she is counseled by the shelter’s director, the tough, no-nonsense, but always caring Phyllis. Nina/Lucy suggests she might just kill her husband, get it over with. “You’ll go to prison. Jails are filled with women who thought they could kill in self-defense,” Phyllis tells her, dismissing the notion.
That’s the dilemma. For a woman brutalized, diminished, and debased, what are the alternatives? Phyllis has a better idea. Let her take care of the threat, and then, and only then, when all is resolved, Nina/Lucy can go home again.
Elias knows his craft; it is well honed and earned, having been in the business for years. His bona fides include television and the movies (The Frisco Kid is in part his, as is The Jerk). He is the longtime writing partner of the comedian Steve Martin, and as evidenced here, Elias has learned his lessons well. He is master of the tease, master of the hook.
There is even a Lee Child/Jack Reacher tough guy riff, a pastiche in a parking lot outside a bar. Karim tells the story of an encounter to her Bobby. In response to his sweet teasing, she laments how she’s never lucky in bars. As an example, she recounts a story of how she was sitting on a stool at a tavern one night when two guys at a table, drinking martinis, minding their own business, are beset upon by a trio of young toughs who decide throwing peanuts at them and calling them pejoratives is fun. When the couple leaves to get away, the toughs trail them out. Nina takes it upon herself to follow. When she gets outside, the couple are already gone, showing good sense to make their get away, leaving Nina to face off against the toughs.
The toughs, described by her derogatorily as “Jersey boys,” are confused. Wait, where are they? Where has the couple gone? they wonder.
“They’re smarter than me.” Nina tells them. “They saw a cab and jumped in.” She hopes that will be the end of it, but it’s not.
“No way. You’re next asshole.”
She backs up against the side of the building so she can’t be jumped from behind. “You sure?” she says to them. “You really want to fight me? On concrete?’
“You guys have health insurance?”
As a seasoned writer, Elias is adept at keeping the reader reading. You Can Go Home Now shines with clever, even brilliant plotting. The novel is a puzzle, perhaps better described as origami. Every plot device folds in on itself satisfyingly and delivers a perfect, compelling shape to the narrative.
On target, on topic, precise, You Can Go Home Now is also peppered with astute cultural references and hip touchstones. Garth Ennis, the super-superlative comic book writer of Preacher, is referenced by Nina more than once for his work at DC Comics’s imprint, Vertigo, and the ultra-timely Rover Red Charlie, a compelling, funny, offbeat, postapocalyptic saga of three dogs on a trek cross-country following a pandemic that has left the earth bare of humanity. She also names, as counterpoint, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (written in 1826, but set in 2090), an all-but-forgotten volume from the writer of Frankenstein that ponderously illustrates life amid a plague epidemic. Pure delight.
There are no fireworks in this novel. Elias eschews fireworks. He is no showoff, and his storytelling is tight and satisfying. “Here in the shelter are women who, in different ways, have experienced men as people who abuse, beat, and sometimes try to kill them.” Nina confesses, she has learned “that daddy and husband are often not terms of endearment.”
You Can Go Home Now delivers, part and parcel. The novel’s foci are important topics, vital concerns to us all, brought to life by an array of characters fully realized, livened by a savvy, flawed narrator with whom we want to spend time, who does the right thing at the same time she does wrong.