TROUBLE THE SAINTS by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Tor Books: New York, 2020. $26.99

An historical mystery with touches of magical realism. A gritty crime novel involving gangsters and their world in late 1930s New York. A triangular romance. A brutal novel of racism and all its injustices. A rumination on justice and goodness. TROUBLE WITH THE SAINTS is all of the above. It’s an ambitious novel that asks readers to mull over and weight the consequences of the morally dubious actions of murderers, liars, moles, gangsters, and the criminally naive. One thread to tie them all together—there is no greater curse than that of the white man. 

The themes of TROUBLE THE SAINTS, her first adult novel in eight years, are an extension of Alaya Dawn Johnson’s previous award-winning work for both adults and young adults. She is probably best known for her YA novels THE SUMMER PRINCE and LOVE IS THE DRUG. The first was nominated for and the second won, in 2015, the Andre Nortion (Nebula) Award for YA science fiction and fantasy. In some ways, TROUBLE THE SAINTS picks up with the theme she addressed in the earlier YA Spirit Binders trilogy:  magic-wielding women who “understand the dark trade offs of power and sacrifice”. 

This novel in three points of view begins with Phyllis Green as she’s known above 110th Street or Phyllis LeBlanc as she’s known below. The name says it all. She is passing as white in the employ of the Russian-born gangster, Victor Demov. She is his ‘angel of justice’, for she has ‘the hands’, a gift from the saints to never miss with her murderous knives. The magic deserts her after she kills an innocent man, Trent Sullivan. Once she discovers Victor lied to her, the hands want vengeance, but they are denied. 

After Victor’s death, Phyllis and her lover Devajyoti Patil, try to live quietly in the Hudson Valley in a house owned by Dev, who takes over the tale. He is a highly introspective character, not a surprise given whom he wishes to be versus who he is. His love for Phyllis is real, but it’s tied up with his gift. He has the hands, too, of always knowing a threat. Her past as Victor’s knife torments him as he wrestles with his own past as an undercover cop. Complicating their lives are the secrets of the small town’s elite family, the Bells. Alvin, a young Black boy working for the white shopkeeper who gave Dev a chance, has the hands, an unerring ability to reveal secrets—which he does to devastating, explosive personal and social effect.

Finally, Dev accepts being drafted and marries Phyllis before shipping out. His former lover Tamara agrees to stay with Phyllis who is pregnant. Tamara loves Phyllis, but cannot abide knowing what is coming. Tamara doesn’t have the hands. She’s an oracle with a strange deck of cards dating from slave days. Through her the voices of ancestors speak, but she doesn’t want the responsibility. She runs away to New York, where she revisits her old haunts and realizes she’s been criminally naive. No, she isn’t a killer, and no, she’s not a gangster, but she’s not precisely good since she’s close to both. Once she owns up to who and what she is, the choice becomes clear. She returns to Phyllis, to face her own sacrifice.

Why include an Anglo-Indian, Dev Patil, in what is fundamentally a story of limited options amidst appalling danger under America’s original sin? (I do appreciate the way Johnson blows up the myth that Northerns aren’t as racist as Southerners. New York is fully as bad as Virginia, in very much the same ways.) Yes, Britain was the snake that brought slavery to her American colonies, and Britain ultimately replaced the Mughal empire in India. The author makes the point that empire is racist and oppressive, speaking repeatedly of enslaved and colonized peoples. Students of empire know that’s not the whole story; for many, empire was an opportunity. 

Really, it is subaltern solidarity. Dev is passing, as is Phyllis, altho’ not for the same reasons or in the same way. As an Anglo-Indian, he is seen as Black in the American sense, and he rolls with it. He is passing as a criminal, but he is an undercover cop. Dev has a foot in several overlapping worlds, but in truth he really belongs in none of them. His internal conflicts are legion, but making him a mole with split loyalties makes him perfect for Phyllis and perfect to present the complexities of loyalty and empire and oppression.

Victor, the Russian gangster, is a right villain, but not in the usual ways. He represents all white people in power in that he steals power from Black people whilst giving them the illusion of empowerment and identity, something Tamara finally understands. He uses Black people to his own nefarious ends, something that Phyllis learns to her consternation. When he is finally put down, he curses Phyllis and Dev. Is this curse specific to them or is it generic to all Black people? Turns out, it is both, but we don’t see that till the end, when it hits like a speeding, four-engine coal train. 

But curses go both ways. Dev and Phyllis’s daughter is named Durga. She is named for the Indian goddess who ensures creation, preservation, and the destruction of evil forces in the university. Durga comes with many avatars, including Kali. A ten-armed goddess, Durga holds a different weapon in each hand; these weapons, each a gift from the other gods. The great mother, she protects her devotees and destroys all evil. What a scourge Phyllis and Dev’s daughter will be. Or will she? We’ll have to wait for the sequel to find out. I sincerely hope it won’t be a long wait.


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