Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. PIs come from many different sorts of backgrounds, and take all sorts of cases. It certainly isn’t a ‘cookie cutter’ occupation. And that’s part of what can make a PI a very interesting character. Let’s take a look at one today, and turn the spotlight on Leigh Redhead’s Peepshow, which features her Melbourne-based PI sleuth, Simone Kirsch.
Kirsch is a newly-licensed PI whose background includes being a stripper. In fact, that’s why she wasn’t admitted to the police force, although that was her first choice. Her PI career hasn’t taken off yet, so she does freelance stripping for events like bachelor parties. She also works at a peepshow place called the Shaft Cinema. One day, her best friend, Chloe Wozniak, who also works at the Shaft, asks for her help. Wozniak works weekends at a table dance club called the Red Room, which is owned by Francisco ‘Frank’ Parisi. One morning, his body is pulled from a local bay, and it’s immediately clear that this was no accident. And that’s the problem. Wozniak was overheard having a loud argument with Parisi not very long before he was murdered, so she’s sure she’ll be a suspect. Kirsch advises her friend to tell the police what happened, but before that can happen, Parisi’s brother, Sal, takes matters into his own hands.
Sal takes Wozniak, and demands that Kirsch find out who killed his brother as the price for her friend’s freedom. He gives her two weeks to find the answers. Now, Kirsch has no choice but to get to the truth. And she decides to start with the people who work at and frequent the Red Room.
Kirsch goes undercover at the Red Room as a new table dancer whose stage name is Vivien Leigh, and slowly gets to know some of the other dancers. From them, and from other sources in the business, Kirsch begins to get a picture of the dead man. He was, as it turned out, a thug who made plenty of enemies, both inside and outside the club. So, there are several possibilities, some of them very dangerous.
As the time gets shorter, Kirsch follows several leads. The trail takes her through a few different peepshow cinemas, table-dance clubs, and a sex-industry expo called Sexpo. It also puts her in the sights of a corrupt police officer and a few other dangerous types. Kirsch isn’t heedless of the risk, but she’s afraid that Sal Parisi won’t think twice about killing his prisoner. So, she perseveres. In the end, and with some help from her PI mentor, among other people, Kirsch finds out who really killed Frank Parisi and why.
This is a PI novel, so Kirsch doesn’t have the law behind her as she talks to people. There’s also information to which she’s not legally privy. She makes effective use, though, of her contacts in the sex industry, and of some of her friends. She also makes use of news items, television, and so on. It’s not spoiling the novel to say that she also gets help and some information from a police detective, Alex Christakos.
The story’s context is the Melbourne sex industry, so readers get to go behind those curtains to see what goes on in table-dance clubs, peepshow cinemas and so on. Readers also get to know some of the characters behind the micro-shorts, thigh-high boots and halter tops.
In one sense, this is a gritty novel. There are several scenes of very explicit sex, so readers who prefer not to read detailed sex scenes will want to know this. There’s also a lot of discussion of the sex industry. Readers who dislike profanity in their novels will want to know that there’s plenty of that, too.
That said, though, the novel isn’t what you’d call noir. It’s got more wit than noir novels usually do. There is violence in the novel, but it’s mostly ‘off stage,’ and not described in gory detail; and Redhead doesn’t present a hopeless, bleak portrait of life in Melbourne’s sex industry.
In fact, by and large, the dancers and other characters we meet are quite empowered. They’re in the business because they want to be, and they help each other. Here’s the way Kirsch describes it:
‘I remembered how much I loved stripping, not the hustle, but the dancing, the rush of power and control. You could be sexual and shameless, yet completely insular, intimate without giving any of yourself away.’
Another character says this:
‘‘…art, power, self expression, and you can’t beat the money.’’
This isn’t to say that there’s no corruption in the industry. But the picture painted here is not one of, say, forced sexual slavery.
The story is told from Kirsch’s point of view (first person, past tense), so we learn quite a bit about her. She’s smart, capable, and at times, witty. She’s no superhero, but she is resourceful and can be outspoken. She drinks at times more than she should, but she’s far from the stereotypical drunken PI who can’t interact well with anyone. She smokes (although she had given the habit up) and doesn’t always say ‘no’ to a bit of pot. Readers who are tired of female characters being exploited will be pleased to know that Kirsch is very much empowered. That’s not to say she’s invulnerable; she’s not. But she’s by no means anyone’s easy prey.
The solution to the mystery is rooted in the past, and it’s ugly and sad. Without spoiling the story, I can say, too, that the motive is complex. It’s the sort of solution that invites readers to think about what they might have done.
Peepshow is a sometimes-raunchy, sometimes-witty look at life in Melbourne’s sex industry. It’s the story of the murder of a roundly-hated thug, and features a PI who makes good use of her brains, resourcefulness and, sometimes, stripping skills. But what’s your view? Have you read Peepshow? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 10 April/Tuesday, 11 April – Something in the Air – John Alexander Graham
Monday, 17 April/Tuesday, 18 April – A Jarful of Angels – Babs Horton
Monday, 24 April/Tuesday, 25 April – Wife of the Gods – Kwei Quartey