Sam Sumida/Jimmy Park (Woman With a Blue Pencil)

Created by Gordon McAlpine
Pseudonyms include Owen Fitzstephen

Your first instinct might be to run when you hear the high-minded praise for this “brilliantly structured labyrinth of a novel—postmodernist in its experimental bravado,” as Joyce Carol Oates calls it.

But relax.  In Woman With a Blue Pencil (2015), Gordon McAlpine doesn’t just write just for the tweed jacket crowd— he writes for all of us. Having already given us the head-spinning Hammett Unwritten (2013), he’s back at it again, licking Hammett’s can further down the road, proving  he’s not just a master of the metafictional po-mo mojo, but also no slouch when it comes to telling a ripping good yarn.

So, sure, your noggin may gyrate a bit, but there’s so much pulpy goodness in this slim volume, even us meat-and-potato readers won’t mind a bit.

Things kick off with an excerpt from The Revised, an unpublished novel by one Tukumi Sato. In the book, it’s December 6, 1941, and bookish Japanese-American professor SAM SUMIDA, still reeling from the recent murder of his wife, is sitting in a theatre catching John Huston’s just-released “The Maltese Falcon,” hoping to pick up a few pointers from Bogie. Seems the LAPD doesn’t give a damn about nailing his wife’s killer, so Sam figures he may have to do it himself.

It’s a promising start, hinting of a great period piece noir to come, full of nuance and melancholy. And then things get weird. Really weird.

The film breaks and the narrative is interrupted by a rejection letter from Maxine Wakefield, an editor at Metropolitan Modern Mysteries, Inc., suggesting that “in light of last Sunday’s tragic events,” the publication of the book is “impossible.” She tosses Sato a bone, though, suggesting that maybe—with major revisions—the book might still be salvaged.

That’s followed by another excerpt, this time from another book entirely, The Orchid and the Secret Agent, by one William Thorne, and it’s all rah-rah red, white and blue patriotism and testosterone, as Korean-American private eye turned super-duper secret agent JIMMY PARK wages war against “those dirty Japs” in post-Pearl Harbor America. It’s so over-boiled and over-blown it’s laughable; a prime piece of race-baiting, wartime cheese.

Which is followed by another excerpt following Sam, still sitting in that darkened theatre, waiting for the show to start up again, unaware his world is about to slip into an alternate reality worthy of a Philip K. Dick novel.

Which in turn is followed by another missive from Maxine, who thanks Sato for all his hard work on the now-retitled book he’s writing under the more American-sounding pen name of Thorne.

But Sam is still alive and well, somewhere out there in literary limbo, thrust into a book and a world he no longer understands. The rest of Woman with a Blue Pencil jumps from narrative to narrative and from editorial missive to editorial missive, the distinctions starting to blur as one reality bleeds into another, and the “novels” begin to overlap with “reality,” particularly when the author himself is placed in an internment camp.

Woman with a Blue Pencil ought to be a pompous, pretentious mess, but McAlpine is not only a fan of the genre, but also a master of style and tone, jumping from piece to piece, building up a evocative, highly readable and timely literary tour-de-force that confronts historic events with audacity and true grit, creating a literary jigsaw puzzle that entertains even as it raises troubling questions of racial and cultural identity, paranoia and repression that are all too often, uh, blue-pencilled to make the past (or the present) taste better.

A must-read for Hammett fans, and those who don’t mind wandering into the literary deep woods upon occasion.


Gordon McAlpine (who sometimes writes as “Owen Fitzstephen”) is the author of Mystery Box (2003), Hammett Unwritten (2013), Holmes Untangled (2018) and The Big Man’s Daughter (2020)–all shape-shifting novels that play fast and loose with the mystery genre, as well as a middle-grade trilogy, The Misadventures of Edgar and Allan Poe. He’s also the co-author of the non-fiction book The Way of Baseball: Finding Stillness at 95 MPH. He has taught creative writing and literature at U.C. Irvine, U.C.L.A., and Chapman University. He lives with his wife Julie in Southern California. Owen Fitzstephen, by the way, is the name of a character, a dissolute, alcoholic writer, in Hammett’s The Dain Curse.


  • “McAlpine’s greatest accomplishment is that the book works both as a conventional mystery story and as a deconstruction of the genre’s ideology: whichever strand readers latch on to, the parallel stories pack a brutal punch.”
    — Publishers Weekly


Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. A slightly different version of this was published in Mystery Scene. Used with Permission.


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