By Jim Feast
Although Martha King’s Max Turns Yellow is a standalone murder mystery, a reader familiar with her last book, Max Sees Red, will be able to see how, taken together, the two books serve as an interesting commentary on the course of gentrification and the place artists play in the process. Let me say a little something about that before I get to this book’s special charm.
Red is set in the Soho of the mid-1970s, which is turning from what, in the time of the Abstract Expressionists in the 1940s and ‘50s, was an industrial neighborhood of small factories with a few artists’ loft scattered among them, into an attraction where New Jerseyites and other tourists come to gawk at the Bohemians. At that time, Max Birtwhistle is still making a name for himself as a painter and is living in this area where he can keep his finger on the art market’s pulse. At the same time, more successful artists are colonizing the Hudson Valley, much to the chagrin of the locals who resent the intrusion of Manhattanites who are buying up all the old family manses. Jump ahead ten years to 1986, and Max has become successful. However, instead of lighting out for the sticks, he helps to start the latest hip trend and moves to the Brooklyn waterfront, taking a place in Dumbo. There he can get cheaper space (in an old pickle factory!!) and quiet. Although the district has few inhabitants, the locals who are in residence are disturbed by this growing incursion. This is especially the case for those in the Mafia-connected restaurant, who would prefer fewer peering eyes.
The change of geographic focus can be tied to formal differences in the novels. Where Red, in keeping with a story that takes place partly in Soho and partly in a rural enclave upstate, is a sprawling work, filled with varied subplots, shifting milieus and a diverse cast of rambunctious characters; Yellow, set in an under-populated neighborhood, is more focused in plot and delves more deeply into the psyches of its fewer characters. It is a more intense read. But it is also Max’s own status that changes the tones of the book. In Red, as an up-and-comer, he has to be out circulating at the Soho bars – one is lovingly described in a delightful thumbnail – and gallery openings. The book is chock full of incident. In Yellow, Max is established and doesn’t have to gad about so much. He can stay home and concentrate on art making, up to a point.
The point is murder. But the killing is different than in the last book. There, in keeping with the book’s picaresque quality, Max gets involved because an oddball writer of his acquaintance has entangled himself in the murder of his editor. Often, though, since he is only peripherally involved, Max watches from the sidelines.
This time it’s personal. Max is living with his girlfriend Britz. She goes out one night when he is asleep and doesn’t come back. Soon enough, her body is found floating in the river. Max is devastated. His sadness throughout the book gives the text a somber complexion, new to King’s writing. Moreover, another new element, as he gets involved in investigating what happened, Max uncovers a mystery in triplicate. Not only is there Britz’s death but, as it turns out, her brother Theo is facing the possibility of being sued for plagiarizing from his writing teacher, even accused of killing him. Moreover, Britz’s earlier life, which she had been cagey about revealing to Max, is itself filled with shocking secrets.
While Red was an engaging read, it was not put together along the lines of a traditional murder mystery in the way Yellow is. In line with generic conventions, this new book begins with a shocker, is filled with unexpected but plausible twists that keep piling up, has moments of real menace (especially in relation to the Mafia’s hangout), and there are times when suspense is ratcheted up to exquisite heights.
And yet, for all these similarities, Yellow is not a typical mysteries. First, there is a depth of characterization in the portrayal of Max that is unusual. As already noted, Max is broken-hearted and much of the book is pervaded by a carefully rendered sadness, quite different from the equitable tone of other crime novels. Max’s circumstances after the disappearance change in a paradoxical way. From living a quiet life with Britz, he now becomes entangled with her brother and with her now-separated parents, whom Britz hadn’t seen for decades. Hadn’t seen for good reason as they were cultists who, when they were growing up, had taken her brother and her from one wacko organization to another. Moreover, to suggest some of the complications, Max is disoriented by Britz’s mother. When he first meets her, “Max’s mouth went dry. The slender woman with silver-gray hair walking toward the glass bus terminal door could have been Britz perhaps twenty years older.”
This can be disconcerting, especially as he is putting her up in his space until the funeral. Meanwhile, the father, who hasn’t been in New York for many years and who from all reports was a burned-out hippie, turns out to know some of the big corporate players connected to the large cancer research institution where Britz worked. Max is forced to contend with these complex and semi-antagonistic personalities as well as with the police, the Mafia (who may be involved), the researchers from Britz’s company, and others who come out of the woodwork. All this happens as he is beset with a grief and misery that is little alleviated by his hunt for the killer.
Second, the book further differentiates itself due to the already suggested, serious thematic substructure which makes location crucial to the story. King shows how people’s lives, their plots as it were, are intimately shaped by their surroundings. With uncanny precision, she evokes the ambience of the area, which is so attractive to artists. She describes Max’s morning walk, “Whatever the weather, it was bracing to trot through the waterfront streets at dawn. Harbor water scented the air even though access to the river itself was for the most part blocked. The variation in light and weather fascinated Max every day. The rhythms primed him for his work.”
Dumbo is edging from being a dilapidated manufacturing zone to being a classy, pricey neighborhood, so it is ambiguous territory. At this point in time the residents find both the joys of solitude, as in our hero’s morning wanderings through deserted streets, and the dangers of the evening. This last is illustrated by the night Britz disappears. Someone from work asks to meet her in her neighborhood at 10 pm. In most parts of the city, the streets would still be busy, but in this area to get to her rendezvous she must walk past the cavernous warehouses and shutdown factories. It is with an observant eye that King paints her unforgettable portrait of a neighborhood shedding its skin.
While her first murder mystery was a well-structured, lively tale, the purist mystery reader might have found that book too full, with many cross-currents that were not part of the central crime. With this book, King has supplied all the prerequisites of a crime novel, including a taut story, which goes twisting and turning without losing its tight focus, and other elements already enumerated, that are so pleasing to the mystery buff. She does this while offering a profundity of theme and character that goes beyond generic expectations.
You can find the book here: http://www.spuytenduyvil.net/max-turns-yellow.html
Jim Feast is the author of two poetry books, the latest being A Strange Awakening of Light that Takes the Place of Dawn (2020).