“You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”
So began Vladimir Nabokov’s puppet, Humbert Humbert, as he set out his case to defend the indefensible in Lolita. The similarly alliterative Dorothy Daniels, in Chelsea G. Summers’ serving of gourmet manslaughter, mixes a prose cocktail still more intoxicating with simile and metaphor, which rather raises the question as to whether she’s equally as unreliable a witness as Humbert. Certainly, she outstrips his body count, with more intention aforethought than her literary predecessor. A serial killer by her own admission, she haughtily deplores the ‘low bar’ set by the FBI’s definition of the crime.
Indeed, Dorothy’s precisely-calibrated voice is one of the particular delights of this assuredly ambivalent debut novel. Surely named after Mrs Parker, whose facility with a well-turned bon mot she shares (“ounce for ounce.” She observes “white truffles are almost as expensive as printer ink”), both as food critic and narrator, Dorothy turns an exacting eye on herself, and a withering one on almost everybody else. A delicious exercise in comic control, her tone is located somewhere in the triangle formed between the tangents of Sheldon Cooper’s deadpan pedantry, Patrick Bateman’s unapologetic vanity, and Hannibal Lecter’s urbane psychopathy, while remaining uniquely her own.
Where she differs from these characters, of course, is in her gender, the corner in which she declines to be painted, assiduously researching her lovers as a practical insurance policy against the possibility of being slut-shamed. It’s all the more notable, then, that her succession of boyfriends and eventual victims have a certain interchangeability; rich and frictionless in the way that fiction requires, so that – even though she disappears from chapters at a time – they come to seem far less fleshed out than her female match.
Without revealing the exact mechanics of the plot, it’s fair to say that, in quite particular ways, Emma Absinthe manages to make Dorothy’s heart grow just a little fonder. True to the clichés of romance, the two despise one another at first sight, so that it’s no narrative surprise when Emma comes to assume the role of Darcy to Dorothy’s Elizabeth Bennet, or, more accurately, Paris Geller to her Rory Gilmore. Or vice versa in either instance, as there’s a sense in which the two act as doubles, in dramatically different ways of accommodating the same expectations of a woman’s work.
As though to underline this, Dorothy reminds the reader time and again that what she allows the world to see is a performance, first of all of normality, but secondly, and more arduously, of a woman. As Summers has her succinctly state: “women have to work so much harder than men to appear half as convincing”.
Whilst it’s part of Summers’ artistry that Dorothy’s occasional discursions into moral polemics are not fatally undermined by her penchant for causing fatality (she also rails against, inter alia, the fall of print media to the internet hordes and, not entirely ironically, the treatment of cattle by the meat industry), it helps, too, that she’s descended from the more recent lineage of the psychopath in literature.
Ultimately, though, it’s the economic understatement of Dorothy’s bitter disappointment in the ills of the man-made world that makes her excesses palatable, that enables investment in the possibility of an unlikely redemption, almost at the death. More misanthrope than misandrist, more species-blind gourmand than cannibal, Dorothy’s confession, reliable or not, is one that lingers long on the tongue, made all the more piquant by the aftertaste of satire.