“We came here to offer our sympathy,” Mrs. Poggett stuttered.
“Do you think I need it?”
A routine prison transfer goes terribly wrong when a gunman opens fire on a crowded train. The targets are convicted murderer Fred Tzegeti and his police escort Robert Luttrell. With a pile of cash found beside the bodies, local authorities are eager to hush up an apparent case of bribery. They reckoned without Amy Luttrell, who will do whatever it takes to clear her late husband’s name. Her quest for vengeance leads to powerful enemies who are just as determined to keep their sins buried—even if it means another dead body.
Nets to Catch the Wind is another impressive California noir from Dolores Hitchens, whose Sleep with Strangers is one of the best books I’ve read this year (okay, it’s only March, but still). While lacking the emotional resonance of that later title, Nets to Catch the Wind is nonetheless an arresting journey through a deceptively sunny underworld.
The paperback edition was published as Widows Won’t Wait, an apt title as Amy hits the ground running from the moment she learns of her husband’s death. She is driven, not by grief, but by anger: at a city that hopes to bury an ugly truth in her husband’s grave, at a society that judges her as a woman, and most of all, at the unfinished life she will never get to share with Robert. Amy spends her days in frenetic activity, desperate to avoid coming home to an empty house in a half-finished subdivision. The house, painfully new, taunts her with all the memories the couple hadn’t created yet. It’s a memorial to their unfulfilled plans.
These poignant moments are deliberately few and far between, however. Amy remains stubbornly stoic throughout; she trusts no one (especially not the reporter who keeps popping up at the strangest times). She also refuses to give others the satisfaction of sympathizing with a helpless young widow, which counts against her in the court of public opinion. It is easier for Amy to navigate the cruel but businesslike world of crime and corruption than to face the judgment of her neighbors.
“I don’t care what they say about me.” She tried to keep the ferocity out of her voice, but some of it got in anyway; she saw Pop Bronson flinch. “Part of it I know already. They’re saying I’m a freak because I don’t stay home to cry, to grieve about my husband. I’ve outraged their delicate sensibilities. I didn’t want to lean on them, to wallow in their sympathy, or to answer their sly questions about Robert, or to have a bunch of women calling in a steady stream, bringing pies and cakes as if I were running a pastry shop. I didn’t collapse…”
She was leaning from the car window, throwing the words in his face. He said gently, “Sometimes women who really love their husbands break down with grief, Amy. Really break down and have to let other folks take over.”
The wheel of the car seemed white-hot under her clenched hands. “I’m not like that, Pop. Sometimes it strikes me that all this has honed me down fine, to a thin little edge. A knife’s edge, waiting for vengeance.”
Instead feeling sorry for herself, Amy saves her empathy for the Tzegeti family. After all, she is healthy and capable of supporting herself, while Mrs. Tzegeti and her daughter Elizabeth are poor refugees who survived a concentration camp only to find the American justice system as corrupt as the one they left behind. “Being a stranger in a strange land must baffle and frighten the bravest. The wish to belong had to fight the ridicule heaped on speech, dress, food,” Amy realizes when she catches herself judging the “odd” smell of Polish cooking. “That’s where prejudice starts…Where we can’t stand smelling anything but a duplicate of our own breakfast.” It is partly through her relationship with the Tzegetis that Amy will see a glimmer of a new life for herself—but has she already gone too far in her pursuit of the truth?
From its bravura opening sequence aboard the train, to the breathless (if slightly confusing) finale, the action never lets up. Amy is an appealing heroine who plunges into a strange and violent world without hesitation; despite a lack of outward emotion, her humanity always shines through. The crime plot could use more twists and some of the emotional developments later in the story don’t quite land. Still, Nets to Catch the Wind is a rare and worthwhile female-centered noir, another gem from Dolores Hitchens.
Nets to Catch the Wind is available as an ebook from the Library of America.