Sunday, November 18, 2007

Where the Dark Streets Go

Dorothy Salisbury Davis turned 91 last April. She wrote an original short story for our Sisters on the Case anthology. Called "Dies Irae," it's set in 1934, as Prohibition is about to end, and features two sisters whose lives have been at odds probably since they were born. Like all the best of Dorothy's writing, the insights into human need and loneliness are powerful and unflinching.

When she talks about her writing, Dorothy says she's always sided with the villains because she understands their motivations better. I've been rereading her novels and I think what she means is that she understands what lies behind villainy. Where the Dark Streets Go, a novel she wrote in her fifties, tells the story of a priest who is summoned to the side of a man dying from a knife wound. The novel is very uninterested in tracking down the murderer. Instead, it is a gripping story of the struggle by the priest to understand himself, his passions, his calling, and the difference between "will and want," as he says at one point. Hamlet said to Horatio, "Give me the man who is not passion's slave/and I will hold him in my heart..." The quest of Father Joseph, and of many Davis protagonists, is to understand how they have become passion's slaves, and what they can do to free themselves. In other novels, like Davis's early A Town of Masks,the novel is told through the voice of a woman who is totally in thrall to her own needs, and at the end, with no hope for redemption, has to kill herself.

Dorothy's novels aren't violent or graphic, but they're very disturbing. They force me into an uncomfortable self-examination, of my life as well as my writing, which seems, in contrast to hers, overly bombastic. I often make myself as well as those around me uncomfortable by being passion's slave.

Whose work have you been reading that has unsettled you in the way Dorothy's writing unsettles me?

by Sara Paretsky

6 comments:

Bob said...

"it's set in 1934, as Prohibition is about to end"

Prohibition ended in 1933.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Sara, I've known Dorothy for more than twenty-five years, and I just love her. If you ever hear that she's having a birthday party, I would like to send her a card.

Libby Hellmann said...

ELLEN FOSTER, by Kaye Gibbons, unsettled me. So did Alice Hoffman's SEVENTH HEAVEN. And Thomas Cook always has a way of disturbing me.. RED LEAVES... all the way back to the CHATHAM SCHOOL AFFAIR.

Sara Paretsky said...

Bob, thanks. I should have looked at the story instead of trying to remember blind. Barb, Dorothy's birthday is April 25. She is a great correspondent, so I'm sure a card would bring back a letter. Libby, thanks for the tips. I'm ready for new books.

JD Rhoades said...

OUT, by Natsuo Kirino. It shows just how thin the veneer of civilization can be and how easily desperate people can break that veneer. The ending is particularly disturbing.

fezabel said...

I have always found Margaret Atwood to be unsettling. I love The Handmaid's Tale but it always keeps me awake for several nights after I read it.