Scott Free: A Crime Novel
by Marijane Meaker writing as Vin Packer
Caroll & Graf. 298 pages, $24.95
SCOTTI HOUSE, the heroine of Vin Packer’s new novel, is a male-to-female (MTF) transsexual, a pre-op whose metamorphosis is fraught with difficulty. In another life she’d earned a PhD from Princeton and worked as a writer and teacher. As the story opens she’s working a series of low-profile, part-time jobs, the kind that don’t require references and records, one of which is helping her ex-wife, an insurance investigator, to track down fraudulent claims. This leads Scotti into an eclectic group of characters, each with his or her own agenda, and she soon learns of the kidnapping of Deanie Lasher, the daughter of a wealthy and terminally ill businessman.
Set in the Hamptons, the reader sees events unfold from the viewpoints of several characters whose lives intersect. Each character is developed to different degrees: some are the stereotypes that populate many mysteries and others are quite unusual. Scotti’s transgender issues are paralleled, or doubled, with the issues of an excommunicated Amish character, Delroy Davenport, who has been shunned by his parents and community for something quite innocent. Meaker subtly weaves this “doubling” through the novel using Delroy’s plight to comment upon Scotti’s situation. This doubling comes to a head in a moment of sudden clarity near the end of the novel, when the similarities between the shunning of thirteen-year-old Delroy and the treatment of transsexuals in our society truly hits home.
The plot of Scott Free is a comedy of misunderstanding in which characters with dark secrets are motivated to do their worst. Scotti is likable except in her poor treatment of Delroy Davenport, who she sees as a threat to her sexual anonymity. In addition to suffering at the hands of ignorance in a way that most members of the GLBT community will understand, Scotti manages compassion and respect for her overweight ex-wife Jessica, and is working to reestablish a relationship with her daughter Emma, who’s angry and embarrassed. Financially strapped and underemployed, she’s trying to meet men and establish new friendships while living with her mother in the Hamptons, a place where power is steadfastly attached to wealth.
A sprinkling of intertextuality includes references to Patricia Highsmith, who is Delroy Davenport’s favorite writer, and William Henley’s poem “Invictus,” which is the name of a private school for the spoiled daughter of the dying Len Lasher and his self-centered young wife Lara. Cultural references include the Duchess of Windsor, whom Lara Lasher is convinced she resembles and whose jewelry she collects. Icons like Princess Diana and Barbra Streisand are said to have qualities of both beauty and homeliness that match the MTF’s situation, in that handsome men often turn into homely women.
Quibbles with this book include the presence of stereotypes for characters and the predictable portrayal of the wealthy as selfish and cruel. An overly painstaking effort to establish places and people means that we’re half-way through the novel before the central “crime” takes place. By then I’d grown to dislike the snotty kid whose kidnapping evoked the memory of O. Henry’s short story, “The Ransom of Red Chief.” Moreover, some twists and turns that make for a satisfying ending seem a bit quick and contrived. However, there is much to recommend in this novel. The shining star is Scotti House, a colorful and unique character who will satisfy readers who seek something different. The last novel by Meaker as Vin Packer was published 38 years ago. Much has changed in publishing and in the lives of GLBT people since then. Scotti House is a woman who is grounded in the 21st century and dealing with issues that resonate today.
Martha Miller is a frequent contributor to the G&LR. For more about her and her writing, see www.marthamiller.net.