Susan Moody: Penny Black

Penny BlackPenny Black
Susan Moody
First published in the UK 1984, Macmillan
ISBN: 0333365321
224 pages
Score 3/5

Penny strode across the shiny expanse of vinyl at the airport near Monterey. Heads turned as she passed. Was she really naked under that white skirt and silk blouse, or did she just look that way? The women tried to decide. The men didn’t need to.

She stepped out through the automatic doors into the shock of the California sunshine. She wore a screw-you look, and four-inch heels. When you were that tall, what difference did a few inches make? A red-cap piled her luggage beside her and stood eyeballing her crotch until she tipped him with a couple of bills places between her outstretched third finger and the rest of her hand. He took them and got the message.

I haven’t read any Jackie Collins, but I imagine that of I had, I’d be citing her as a major influence on Susan Moody. Penny Black is very much of its time, with the 80s oozing from every designer pore. Penny Wanawake is a globe-trotting photographer, ‘six feet of outraged black female’, daughter to a diplomat, lover to an art thief, and a strong, courageous and intelligent investigator. And a bit of a clothes horse.

Susan Moody wrote seven Penny novels between 1984 and 1993, including Penny WisePenny DreadfulPenny Post and Penny Saving (when she ran out if puns). Significantly for this blog, she also edited the Hatchards Crime Companion, home to the CWA’s top 100 crime novels, so I was happy to find this first edition on Norwich market in the summer.

Penny Black kicks off with the disappearance of Penny’s friend Marfa, a somewhat clueless model, somewhere between her home in Washington and Hawaii. Penny flies to California to track Marfa down and manages to connect her friend with an unidentified body in the police morgue. Marfa has been stabbed to death in an LAX restroom, and, sadly, horribly mutilated.

Penny resolves to discover her friend’s killer and follows her trail back to Washington DC. There, Penny soon hooks up with Aaron Kimbell, a PI hired by Marfa’s father to investigate her death. There’s an instant chemistry between the two of them and some convincingly flirtatious smutty talk of the I-was-just-wondering where-you’d-put-your-gun variety. They also provide a running commentary on stereotypes of blackness and marginalisation in America. Marfa’s father, Senator George P. Lund is a good old-fashioned southern racist who has hired Aaron without realising he is black.

Penny and Aaron are soon embroiled in Washington’s super-rich community of orchid breeders, including French trophy-wife Nicole Delarge, Senator Lund, and scientist Dr Frank Bernard and his Indian girlfriend Kamala. The macguffin is a black orchid, worth millions in the hands of an expert. One of them is prepared to kill for it – maybe repeatedly.

Penny Black is enjoyably glossy and a solid grounding for a series. I had a good time reading it, slightly marred by a vague feeling of discomfort that Penny was written by a white Englishwoman. The answer lies on YouTube, and taught me a bit of a lesson about making assumptions.

Final destination: A keeper

Creative Commons License
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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4 Responses to Susan Moody: Penny Black

  1. Rich – Sounds like a fun kind of read. I like your term glossy; it tells me a lot. I may give this a try when I’m ready for something, well, glossy.

  2. Whoops! Sorry, Rich – It might help if I turned closed my italics *blush.*

  3. Pingback: Pick of the month: December 2012 | Past Offences

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